2021 IN THE REARVIEW MIRROR: MARATHON’S MOST IMPORTANT HEADLINES

As Marathon continued to battle through the COVID-19 pandemic with a strong start to vaccinations, the city also saw the birth of a brand new hospital and library, the closure of its only department store, and some semblance of normalcy with the return of highly-anticipated old and new yearly events. Take a stroll through 2021’s top Weekly headlines.

JANUARY

Islamorada Assistant Fire Chief Jason Lyman received a vaccination on Jan. 6 by Fire Chief Terry Abel. VILLAGE OF ISLAMORADA/Contributed

Vaccinations underway in Monroe County, by appointment only

Frontline workers the first to be inoculated

At long last, the light at the end of the proverbial COVID-19 tunnel arrived in Monroe County in the form of vaccinations, beginning with doses for frontline workers. If Keys residents didn’t have enough to discuss and debate, the jabs from Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson, and the shortage of necessary doses, would continue to dominate conversations for the rest of the year (and, if we’re being honest, probably well into 2022). Within three weeks, doses would make their way to Publix pharmacies with appointments available to the public.

Crane Point’s restored and repurposed train car takes its rightful place in the location of Marathon’s original train station circa 1909. CONTRIBUTED.

Old Car, New Life

Restored train car anchors Marathon museum

The restoration of Crane Point’s vintage train car was a labor of love for Lynn Voit. Although she doesn’t have any formal ties to Crane Point Museum, she does have tons of panache and a love for Marathon. Voit and Crane Point Museum’s Charlotte Quinn hatched a plan to transform the vintage train car’s presence on U.S.1 to highlight the attraction’s entrance — landscaping, a new coat of paint and dramatic lighting. For many years, the train car was located on Pigeon Key. In December of 2018, it was relocated to its current location which is in the exact same spot of Marathon’s original train station, circa 1908. The train car will serve as museum office space and a boardroom.

The Marathon High School girls weightlifting team placed first in districts on Jan. 23. Every member of the team who qualified for districts also advanced to the regional competition. SARA MATTHIS/Keys Weekly

MHS IS NUMBER ONE

Keys weightlifters advance to regional competition

Marathon High School hosted the girls weightlifting district competition in the gym on Jan. 23. All 20 girls who competed in Districts continued to Regionals the following weekend. “Just to compete, well, that was amazing,” said MHS coach Jesse Schubert. The MHS gym was staged with four stations, each serving a different weight class. About 100 girls came to compete. 

FEBRUARY

The Marathon High School Dolphins were crowned 2021 district champions, defeating Keys Gate 5-1. BARRY GAUKEL/Keys Weekly

District Champs!

MHS boys soccer team advances to regionals

Marathon High School soccer coach Arno Silva said the high school team has been dreaming about a championship trophy for three years. “We felt this year it was our time to win a title,” Silva said. Henry Herrera scored four goals, and Anthony Machado scored another on a penalty kick to defeat Keys Gate, last year’s district champions.

MARCH

COUNCIL PUTS BAPTIST ON NOTICE

Marathon might withdraw support for hospital taxing district

On March 9, the Marathon City Council directed staff to bring two ordinances back for the April meeting — one in support of the special taxing district in support of Fishermen’s Hospital, and one in opposition. Councilman Dan Zieg said the council had asked for a more detailed accounting last year, when it was time to renew support for the taxing district that it has yet to receive, and also that it has no updated information for this year. 

Jay Hershoff, chairman of the Baptist Health South Florida board of directors, said no one from the city told him the item was up for discussion. The taxing district was conceived in 2018 when it was clear that Fishermen’s Community Hospital was completely destroyed by Hurricane Irma and needed to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Mayor Luis Gonzalez and Councilmen John Bartus and Steve Cook urged patience. “I share the frustration that we were not provided the financials we wanted to see, but I would like to give (Baptist) the benefit of the doubt,” said Bartus.

Patience was well rewarded, as the requested financial reports were provided within 24 hours, and Baptist executives returned to the City Council at its April meeting to encourage the council to renew the special taxing district.

Keys schools were ordered to reopen full-time in March. CONTRIBUTED.

State education chief orders MCSD to fully open schools 

Schools, students, parents react to state mandate 

The state’s top education official ordered Florida Keys schools to offer full-time, face-to-face instruction for all students by the end of the month, despite the school district’s and the health department’s continuing concerns about community spread of the COVID virus.

In an email, superintendent Theresa Axford apologized to teachers. “It is with a heavy heart that I write to you this afternoon,” Axford wrote. “I received a letter from the Commissioner of Education, which requires us to offer five days of in-person instruction to all students who want it. We have been aware of a group of parents who have been pursuing this option, but we believed that we were working with them to resolve their concerns. Apparently the commissioner does not believe that the level of community spread of the virus is an acceptable reason to not offer five days of face to face instruction. (Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran) has sent a clear directive that indicates there will be significant financial penalties if we do not comply with his order.”

APRIL

Only a handful of cars were in Marathon’s Kmart parking lot on the afternoon of March 29. SARA MATTHIS/Keys Weekly

GOODBYE, KMART

Job sites advertise positions in Marathon, Key Largo for ‘store closing”

There are no signs on the doors or going-out-of-business sales, but the Kmart stores in Marathon and Key Largo appear to be on the way toward closure. Ads have been posted to various job sites with titles like “temporary customer service, apparel — up to 40 hrs/week, store closing.” For months, there have been unsubstantiated rumors that the stores in the Keys were closing. According to Forbes, the two Keys locations and a Kmart store in California were all put on the chopping block quietly on a Friday evening, March 26. As news of the closings spread, locals began commenting on social media with replacement options ranging from a roller rink to Target to Walmart, although some decried the idea of another big box store. 

Collin Wainwright of Pennsylvania finishes first in the 2021 7 Mile Bridge Run. BARRY GAUKEL/Keys Weekly

40TH RACE IN THE BOOKS

Locals take second, third place

Giving some needed normalcy in 2021, the 40th annual 7 Mile Bridge Run returned on April 17 after a hiatus in 2020. This year’s race was only open to those who successfully registered for the canceled 2020 run. Despite the heat, it was a “fast” race. Collin Wainwright of Pennsylvania, 25, finished first with a time of 37:46. Marathon’s Jonathan and Owen Pitchford, 18-year-old twin brothers, were right behind finishing in 38:03 and 40:17.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito. WIKIPEDIA/Contributed

Oxitec to begin placements in Keys

Company announces 6 locations for mosquito-control experiment

The Florida Keys Mosquito Control District and Oxitec Ltd. released an advisory outlining some of the plans for its Florida Keys pilot project. Project managers anticipate that during the last week of April and first week of May, release boxes, non-release boxes and netted quality control boxes will be placed in six locations on Cudjoe, Ramrod, and Vaca Key. Oxitec’s non-biting male mosquitoes will emerge from the boxes to mate with the local, biting female mosquitoes. The female offspring of these encounters cannot survive, and the population of Aedes aegypti is subsequently controlled. The Aedes aegypti mosquito makes up about 4% of the mosquito population in the Keys, but is responsible for virtually all mosquito-borne diseases transmitted to humans. 

MAY

Keys Weekly was privileged to receive a sneak peek inside Fishermen’s Community Hospital before its opening in June. DOUG FINGER/Keys Weekly

An anchor for the heart of the Keys

Fishermen’s Hospital opens in early June

On Monday, June 7, the brand new Fishermen’s Community Hospital will open to the public. The 37,000-square-foot, $43.7 million facility is nearing completion and the Keys Weekly recently received an exclusive first look. “I am unbelievably grateful to the Marathon community for supporting the hospital and raising the funds needed to get this hospital built,” said Jay Hershoff, chairman of the Fishermen’s Community Hospital and Mariners Hospital boards and vice chairman of Baptist Health South Florida, the parent company. “Baptist Health South Florida is proud to have built perhaps the only new critical access, or rural hospital, in the entire United States during the past decade,” said Drew Grossman, the leader of both Fishermen’s Community Hospital and Mariners Hospital. The new hospital eventually held a ribbon-cutting on July 1, and Dr. Derek Papp successfully completed the facility’s first surgeries – two shoulder arthroscopies – on October 4.

JUNE

The brand new Marathon branch of the Monroe County Public Library opened its many high-tech attractions to the public on June 26.

New nooks for books

New facility features so many high-tech, wonderful details

The amount of high-tech, thoughtful detail in the new Marathon branch of Monroe County Public Libraries is stunning. The $7.5 million facility opened to the public on Saturday, June 26 with a special ribbon cutting. The county’s hope is that the library will become the “community’s living room.” To that end, there are multiple meeting spaces — four small, private conference rooms; a ground floor meeting space that can be sectioned off from the larger space for presentations; an activities center up stairs for yoga or science lab or Dungeon and Dragons games; and a teen center equipped with video games. At the same time, the library offers plenty of nooks and crannies where patrons can be “alone, together” whether that’s seated on the couch with USB ports, or in a futuristic desk/chair.

JULY

A Marathon man holds a sign that reads ‘Down with Diaz-Canel’ and ‘Homeland and Life.’ The second slogan is a revision of Fidel Castro’s slogan of ‘Homeland or Death.’ GINA REYES/Contributed

#SOSCuba

Cubans in the Keys tell of the struggle 90 miles away

On July 11, thousands of protestors in Cuba took to the streets in at least five cities, and were joined by thousands more in South Florida on July 12. This is the largest protest in memory since 1956. The hashtag “#SOSCuba” is trending on Twitter and everyone from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to entertainers Gloria Estefan and Pitbull is voicing support for Cuban people. Locals, many with immediate family members in Cuba, say the situation in the island nation has deteriorated. The pressures of COVID — as an illness rampant in Cuba as well as the decline it prompted in the Cuban economy that relies on international tourism blocked by the pandemic — have resulted in very reduced medical care and food shortages in Cuba. In addition, regular outages of electricity and water supply predated the protests. “We need to be free,” said Yaimara Perez, a U.S. citizen who fled Cuba more than five years ago. “We have to continue, we have to keep going. I don’t want this to just be about July 11. I want to see July 12 and July 13 and July 14 so that we can see change in Cuba.” 

Dallas Cook, left, Matt Pitcher, Spook Roussin, Randy Botteri and Tyler Blanton model the latest in grilling fashion for the first Florida Keys Brew BQ. SARA MATTHIS/Keys Weekly

STUFFED & SATED

Brew BQ a win-win

The first Florida Keys Brew BQ attracted a great-size crowd at the Marathon Community Park July 17-18. Quaffing craft brews kept core temperatures down and the crowds were entertained by live music, shopping fun, kids games and lots of good food. Festival goers thronged the “big rig” barbecue joints, as well as local favorites like the Kaiyo Catering, La Isla and Bongos tents. Only the judges (lucky devils) got tastes of the amateur competition and the stakes were very high (bragging rights!) and rivalry fierce. The locals’ tents were thronged with supporters and family.

AUGUST

Upper Keys resident Nick Hodge served in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, First Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. CONTRIBUTED

Firsthand accounts from Afghanistan veterans

Keys veterans respond to America’s crude exit 

They were there. On the ground. In Afghanistan. The veterans and active duty service members saw what was happening in real life, in real time, a half a world away. They knew what was going wrong — and what was going well. But folks in Washington rarely asked them. They befriended many Afghans. They buried best friends. They woke many mornings covered in three inches of dust, dirt and sand. They heard the horrors of prior Taliban rule and fought to resist its return. For 20 years, American military personnel — and other foreign soldiers — fought a war in, but not against, Afghanistan. Many agree, the end of America’s involvement over the past month was ill-planned and potentially lethal to Afghan allies — soldiers’ interpreters and friends who are left behind. The speed with which the Taliban reclaimed Afghanistan cities was alarming to many, but not surprising to those who had been there.

SEPTEMBER

Vice principal Sarah Adams, left, Superintendent Theresa Axford, school board member John Dick and school board member Sue Woltanski lead the long-awaited ribbon-cutting. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

Our Dream Came True

At last, local school officials and other Monroe County dignitaries gathered together with students and faculty to celebrate the ribbon-cutting and official opening of the all-new Stanley Switlik Elementary School on Sept. 21. Completion of the new facility after breaking ground in 2018 was certainly a cause for celebration. Former principal Brett Unke excitedly asked the crowd, “Did our dream come true?” The deafening answer from adults and children alike was, “Yes!”

Keys Weekly publisher Jason Koler entertains the crowd after sunset at the 2021 Best of Marathon Awards.

Everyone wins at the Best of Marathon

Annual event brings community together for a purpose

The excitement of the Best of Marathon reached its crescendo this past Saturday night when the winners of the 2021 people’s choice awards were announced at the Marathon Community Park. For the first time ever, the Best of Marathon was held al fresco – under bistro lighting where a crowd of more than 200 business leaders, elected officials and Marathon Rotarians celebrated the recent accomplishments of our community.

Since 2013, the Best of Marathon has served as a fundraiser for the Marathon Rotary Club, where 100% of sponsorships, tickets, drink and raffle sales goes directly to the club to support scholarships for local youth and other community projects. This year’s haul for the Marathon Rotary Club looks to be north of $12,000. “The Best of Marathon is a great example of what makes a small town great – the people,” said Rotary president Duane Webster.

OCTOBER

Marathon’s Pedro Zapata takes the boys’ overall title with a time of 17:11. BARRY GAUKEL/Keys Weekly

Runnin’ Down a Dream

Marathon’s Pedro Zapata wins All-County cross country meet

On Tuesday, Oct. 19, Sombrero Beach Road became the course for the All-County cross country showdown between Marathon, Key West, and Coral Shores high schools. Marathon’s Pedro Zapata took home the gold medal for the boys, while Marathon runners rounded out the top three in the girls’ race as Mikkel Ross and Maeve Merryman took 2nd and 3rd place, respectively. After strong showings at the county and district meets, Marathon sent both boys and girls runners to compete at the state championships for the third straight season.

NOVEMBER

Three generations of Gonzalez men are on hand to witness Luis’ re-election. From left, Luis, Trey, and Louie Gonzalez. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

Marathon Has Spoken

Luis Gonzalez and Trevor Wofsey win two open seats on Marathon City Council

When results of early voting came rolling in, Luis Gonzalez had a good feeling about his early lead. And yet, it was still too early to call. “Elections are trends,” he said as he waited outside the Marathon Elks Lodge with his family, refreshing the election results on their phones every few seconds. When all five precincts added their tallies to the early and absentee numbers, however, the trend would prove true, as Gonzalez and Trevor Wofsey won the two available seats on the Marathon City Council. Out of 1,848 ballots cast, with voters able to choose one or two candidates, Gonzalez finished as the top vote-getter with 1,282 votes (41% of all votes submitted). Wofsey ended the night with 879 votes (28.1%). Jody “Lynny” Del Gaizo received 648 votes (20.7%), while Greg Coldiron finished with 319 votes (10.2%).

DECEMBER

The Old Seven Mile Bridge is due to open very early in 2022. ALEX RICKERT/Keys Weekly

(Almost) Ready and Waiting

Old Seven Mile Bridge renovations enter final stages

We’re almost there. Seriously.

The long-awaited completion of the Old 7 Mile Bridge project is just around the corner. Originally scheduled as a four-year $41 million project, October 2022 would mark the end of the estimated project timeline from when bridge work actually commenced. The estimated completion eventually moved up to a March-through-May 2022 target date, and as it stands now, Pigeon Key executive director Kelly McKinnon said the new timeline should open the bridge “shortly after the new year.” And while most may not realize the full scope of the project beyond the new paint job visible from the active 7 Mile Bridge, the work done to the old bridge was enormous.

In addition to three separate coats of paint, the construction crew used hydraulic jacks to lift the entire bridge, one 10-foot section at a time, to replace structural I-beams and replace rusted metal plates. A new aluminum rail system was also installed inside the old railings to bring the bridge up to code and ensure pedestrian safety.

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