2021’S TOP STORIES FROM THE UPPER KEYS

Construction of new facilities, acquisition of an iconic lighthouse off the Islamorada shores and the closure of one of the Keys only remaining box stores highlighted a busy 2021 in the upper island chain. The year also saw a visit from Florida’s governor, the death of a local businessman/county commissioner and the return of major Keys events following their cancellation the year before due to COVID-19. 

JANUARY 

An aerial of the College of the Florida Keys’ new Key Largo facility. DAVID GROSS/Keys Weekly A NEW ERA FOR HIGHER EDUCATION

A NEW ERA FOR HIGHER EDUCATION

College construction begins in Key Largo 

Walls began to stand at the site of the new College of the Florida Keys along U.S. 1 in Key Largo. With the razing of the old Shell World complete, construction of a two-story, 38,000-square-foot building on roughly two acres commenced. Completed in time for students in August, the $20 million Upper Keys Center is one of the first structures travelers see as they make their way into the Florida Keys. The facility accommodates students in programs like nursing, emergency medical technology, public safety, marine environmental technology and construction apprenticeships. The Category 5 facility can also be used as an emergency operations center in the event of a storm. Officials celebrated completion of the facility in August. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis announces funding for Keys resiliency alongside state and county officials. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

TOP OFFICIAL IN THE KEYS

Governor’s visit delivers good news 

Flanked by state and Monroe County officials at Key Largo’s Murray Nelson Government Center, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced $16.7 million would be making its way to the island chain to address flooding and enhance stormwater systems, among other projects. It’s part of $100 million in Rebuild Florida funds being doled out by the state to 24 communities affected by storms. Of the funds allotted locally, $1.3 million will assist homeowners in Key Largo vulnerable to storm surge. Monroe County will get just over $10.4 million for sea level rise and flood prevention projects. “Controlling water has been a challenge that Florida has faced throughout the entire history of the state, and it’s one we’ll continue to face. But it’s one we’re going to deal with head on,” DeSantis said. “We feel excited to be able to do it, and we’re excited to help out the good folks of Monroe County. The folks here are resilient. They understand, unfortunately, storms are part of life. When it happens we want to be there to be able to offer our support.”

FEBRUARY 

Construction of the pedestrian bridge was underway at the time of FDOT’s announcement to cancel the project. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

‘OVER IT’

Multimillion bridge canceled in Islamorada

An elevated walkway over U.S. 1 neared construction next to Islamorada’s Founders Park. A village dais united in opposition to the project and public outcry, however, led to the cancellation of the $4.68-million state project to construct the Keys’ first pedestrian bridge on the Overseas Highway. A letter issued by the Florida Department of Transportation District 6 Secretary James Wolfe on Feb. 5 informed Mayor Buddy Pinder of the department’s decision to cancel the Founders Park Pedestrian Bridge. Action by FDOT to end the project swiftly — just weeks before installing foundations — came following a letter from Pinder on behalf of the village council on Jan. 20 that urged the Florida governor to instruct FDOT to cease any further construction. Wolfe’s letter stated the change of position is “unfortunately timed” and “causing a loss of public funds.” According to state transportation officials, a total of $1,616,848 was spent by the department on the project. “I guess they found out we were serious and we were going to continue on, and we got the job done,” said Henry Rosenthal, who led the push. 

An aerial of the Windley Key Condominiums in Islamorada. DAVID GROSS/Keys Weekly

HABITAT HOUSING 

Windley Key Condos complete

When six families moved into their new homes at the Windley Key Condominiums in Islamorada, it also marked completion of the biggest project undertaken by Habitat for Humanity of the Upper Keys so far. Habitat board members, local subcontractors, village officials and community members watched as Lindsay Fast, new Habitat executive director, cut the red ribbon alongside several families. With a groundbreaking in August 2018, work was completed in early 2021. Of the 16 units, eight are designated for ownership and eight for rentals. They’re two-bed, two-and-half-bath units with balconies and views of the oceanside. “We’re super excited with the completion of this project,” Fast said. “It’s life-changing for hardworking families who work here in Monroe County.

MARCH

Young Blake Pera enjoys his new swing thanks to the Monroe County Buildings, Parks and Beaches and Robert Glassmer, administrator. CONTRIBUTED

COMMUNITY SUPPORT
Boy gets swing 

A special-needs swing at the park gained momentum following a post by Rebecca Rowe to a local Facebook community page, known as the Real Locals of the Florida Keys, that told young Blake Pera’s story. On March 14, Monroe County and Robert Glassmer, administrator of buildings, parks and beaches, had installed a swing for Blake, who has cerebral palsy, at Key Largo Park. Above the swing is a name plate with Blake’s name. With March being Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month, Blake’s mother, Jessica, said she couldn’t be more thankful to the community for allowing her son to have some fun at the park. “Everybody from this community came in to help. We’re blown away and grateful to be part of this community,” she said

An aerial of Smugglers Cove Marina in Islamorada. CONTRIBUTED

NEW MARINA OWNERS
Smugglers Cove, Angler House sell

Miami-based Integra Marinas announced the sale of Islamorada and Angler House marinas to Safe Harbor Marinas for $18 million. Integra Marinas said it spent millions for improvements that included overhauling docks and wet slips to the building of a large tiki and resort-style pool. Amenities were also upgraded, including the addition of Islamorada Square Grouper to Islamorada Marina in 2019. Smuggler’s Cove Marina and adjacent property at MM 85, bayside, were recently acquired by Chief Marine Group. Located next to the only drawbridge in the Florida Keys, Chief Marine Group and its partners say they’re dedicated to developing a waterfront destination that includes marina fuel, boat sales, services, nightly accommodations and a variety of dining options. 

APRIL 

Kmart in Key Largo. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

‘SO LONG’ BOX STORE

Kmart closes in Key Largo

The Keys’ largest box store closed shops in Key Largo and Marathon following temporary job postings for a “store closing.” Inside the Key Largo store, blocked-off areas have shrunk the store. The toy and clothes departments remained, but the seasonal section, electronics area and outdoors department were barricaded. Remaining supplies from those departments were placed on racks in other aisles. The Marathon store reportedly opened in 1977 and the Key Largo store in 1987, according to Michael Lisicky, a self-described department store historian. 

Drew Grossman is CEO of Mariners and Fishermen’s hospitals. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

NEW MAN IN CHARGE
Mariners, Fishermen’s has new CEO

The departure of the hospitals’ longtime leader, Rick Freeburg, left Baptist searching for a successor to lead the two Keys hospitals. Following a search, in came Drew Grossman as the next chief executive officer on Feb. 25. In his time with various hospital networks, Grossman said his vision always centered around “compassionate and quality care.” Carrying that to the Keys, Grossman said, it’s not always about how nice the facility looks from outside — it’s the care patients experience inside. “These will be known as top-notch hospitals,” he said. “I’m all about creating a process here that we all know how to do it right from start to finish.”

MAY

“Reef” the fox with owner Nicole Navarro. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

FOX FINDS HOME …. IN THE KEYS?

Local starts nonprofit for furry friends

Saved from a fur farm and finding a new island home: a 6-week-old fox with blemishes is safe in the Keys. In early May, Key Largo resident and founder of Pawsitive Beginnings Inc., Nicole Navarro, received word that several baby foxes were being rescued from a Minnesota fur farm. Navarro couldn’t say “no” to taking one of them, having given four older foxes sanctuary at her home last year. She flew with a friend to Save A Fox sanctuary in Minnesota, which safeguards foxes with injuries and fur flaws. The nonprofit saves the furry animals, which are deemed “no good” by fur farmers and left to be killed. On May 6, Navarro retrieved the tiny fox she calls “Reef.” “I was driving one day before I got him, and it popped into my head,” said Navarro, who started her nonprofit to raise awareness about fur farming. “I thought it was very fitting.”

JUNE

Sunset Point Park: Sunset Point Park in Key Largo. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

‘OVERCROWDED’

Small Key Largo park shuts down

A small county-owned park in a Key Largo residential neighborhood closed to the public following complaints surrounding its overuse. Sunset Point Park stayed closed for the Fourth of July and beyond as county officials work on a management plan that addresses parking, among other issues. The once hidden gem in Sunset Point Park has become a popular spot for visitors and daytrippers. Park users frequently exceed the limited parking for the neighborhood park by parking vehicles and boat trailers on the shoulder of the narrow neighborhood roads. Eventually the park opened up, but on a limited basis. 

New Islamorada Manager Greg Oravec takes the oath of office by Village Clerk Kelly Toth. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

NEW MANAGER TAKES HELM

Islamorada Council selects former Port St. Lucie Mayor

June 28 marked the final meeting and June 30 the final day for Port St. Lucie Mayor Greg Oravec. He packed his belongings and fit in final interviews with city media before making his way to the Keys for his next journey as manager for the village of Islamorada. A decision to leave Port St. Lucie, where he served for some 20 years, was not easy for Oravec and his family. He wrote to city residents in early June following Islamorada Village Council’s decision to pick him as the next village manager. In reading the recruitment for the position, Oravec said, he felt that the position was calling his name — the closing date for applications was the same day as his mom’s birthday. His mom, who passed away in 2013, always enjoyed visiting Oravec when he lived in the Keys in the late ’90s.

JULY 

Ocean Studies construction: Ocean Studies Charter School undergoes construction of a second floor. DAVID GROSS/Keys Weekly

A SECOND STORY

School adds another floor 

Construction of a second-story, middle-school wing at Key Largo’s Ocean Studies Charter School is moving quickly in anticipation for completion later this year. At the corners of the facility’s second floor, four classrooms will be constructed for ELA, math, civics and multi-purpose use. A courtyard with seating in the middle will give students the ability to eat and learn in the open air. “The changes have all taken place so quickly, but it’s so much fun,” said Principal Trisha Woods. “The biggest thing for me is being able to see our fifth graders be able to continue with us through eighth grade. For me, that’s the biggest thing — not losing them.”

AUGUST

Nick Hodge, who served in the U.S. Army, with an Afghan child. CONTRIBUTED

LOCAL VETS REACT TO AFGHANISTAN EXIT
‘Tough to stomach’

Many veterans who served in Afghanistan agreed that the end of America’s departure 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, including those who had warned the politicians of the Taliban’s continuing presence and increasing strength, as well as the vulnerabilities of the Afghan military and government. “It’s tough to stomach. I lost a couple classmates over there. I actually put one in Arlington in 2007. It’s unfortunate we spent 20 years with loss of life to American soldiers, and as soon as we pulled out, the trained Afghani National Army, the police and other agencies there lasted 10 days,” said Nick Hodge, of Islamorada, who served in the U.S. Army, First Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.

SEPTEMBER

Mike Forster with Ugandan children. CONTRIBUTED

MIKE FORSTER PASSES AWAY FROM COVID-19

An animal lover whose nirvana was fishing in the Everglades, Mike Forster inspired many people by his many causes, from a student’s education to shoes for Ugandan children. Forster passed away on Sept. 6 after a battle with COVID-19. Forster spent most of his years living in Islamorada yet served those in need throughout the Upper Keys and eventually throughout the Florida Keys. One of his most cherished and celebrated missions involved traveling with a group of locals led by Pastor Tony Hammon to Uganda, Africa, to serve the hundreds of children living in orphanages, making annual treks from 2016 through 2018.

Boats pack around Alligator Lighthouse, located off the shores of Islamorada, during the weekend of July 4. DAVID GROSS/Keys Weekly

LIGHTHOUSE ACQUIRED
Pair of locals ready to reinvigorate Alligator 

Organizers of the annual swim out to Alligator Lighthouse, Rob Dixon and Larry “Lighthouse” Herlth, received news of a lifetime when a letter arrived that gave the final stamp of approval that granted ownership of the lighthouse to their nonprofit. Efforts to secure Alligator Lighthouse go back more than two years, when the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security determined there was no need for them to own and operate it. That announcement also brought an end to lighthouse maintenance, which propelled several groups to apply to the National Parks Service to secure the lighthouse and initiate restoration. “This is our Statue of Liberty. A lot of our activities focus around Alligator Lighthouse. It’s our place to go and it would be tragic if it ever fell,” Dixon said. 

OCTOBER

A fisherman holds a stone crab. CONTRIBUTED

CRAB SUPPLIES LOW
As one commercial fisherman colorfully put it, “I could catch more crabs on Duval Street right now than in the Florida Bay.” Understandably, Bill Kelly, the executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fisherman’s Association, expressed himself in a more understated way. “It’s not overwhelming, I can tell you that,” he told Keys Weekly about the 2021 stone crab harvest’s first weekend. Gary Graves, vice president at Marathon’s Keys Fisheries Market & Marina, which buys stone crabs from the commercial fishermen then sells them to the public, is a little more blunt. “The catch is way off in our area,” he said. “It’s very slow. But it’s the second day of season. It’s hard to predict.”

NOVEMBER

Carl Hiaasen headshot by TIM CHAPMAN/Contributed

APPLE FILMING IN THE KEYS
Show based on  ‘Bad Monkey,’ a Hiaasen novel

A prestige series with major Hollywood players is set to film in the Keys in 2022. Per the Hollywood Reporter, the production has been ordered by Apple and is based on the 2013 Carl Hiaasen novel “Bad Monkey.” The series will be 10 episodes to start and executive produced and starring Vince Vaughn of “Wedding Crashers” fame. The showrunner? Bill Lawrence, who just swept the Emmys with the series “Ted Lasso” and created the sitcom “Scrubs.” “A show like this would be really great for the Keys,” said Florida Keys film commissioner Chad Newman, who confirmed that the production company has been in touch with him. “Production is starting to ramp up and look for locations. It will be produced by Warner Bros. TV and start mid next year.”

DECEMBER 

Eddie Martinez resigned following a domestic violence arrest. CONTRIBUTED

COMMISSIONER RESIGNS

Decision comes following domestic violence arrest Citing health issues, Monroe County Commissioner Eddie Martinez resigned from the Monroe County Commission. An official resignation letter was sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, according to a county press release. A representative serving the west end of Key West, Martinez informed officials late last week that he’d be taking a voluntary leave of absence for 30 days. It all comes following his domestic violence-related arrest on Nov. 30 at a family home in Hialeah, where he allegedly threw boxes, a drawer and a pill box at his wife during an argument. Martinez’s resignation comes a day after news that a resolution was being crafted by Commissioner Michelle Coldiron asking him to step away from the seat. “It is my utmost desire for Eddie Martinez to receive the help he needs to overcome his current health problems. I wish the best for him and his family,” she said.

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Jim McCarthy is a Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, mixed martial arts and golf. He loves to hit the links and play some softball with his Make A Play team. He also enjoys time with family (he's expecting a little boy in October).