Higgs Beach in Key West is due to receive $833,000 of tourist tax revenue to fund improvements to the beach restrooms. LARRY BLACKBURN/Keys Weekly

By Mandy Miles, Jim McCarthy and Alex Rickert

As evidenced by congested roads, a busy airport and packed restaurants, tourists continue to flock to the Florida Keys. Hotel occupancies and nightly rates remain high, as do Monroe County’s bed tax revenues. Bed tax funds are used by the county’s Tourist Development Council to promote the Florida Keys and special events and to fund capital projects that contribute to the county’s tourism economy. 

A little more than $8.8 million in bed tax dollars is going to support a variety of capital projects, which do everything from improving the Florida Keys waters to attracting and educating tourists and residents. Last month, the Monroe County Tourist Development Council’s five district advisory committees (DACs) met to dole out funds to various organizations from Key Largo to Key West. Recommendations from the DACs next will go before the TDC board and the Monroe County commission for final approval. 

In Key West, DAC I had received funding requests that totaled $4.2 million, but only had $3.3 million available for 2023 capital projects. In distributing that money, the committee funded 13 projects, with the largest allocation of $833,000 going to Monroe County for Higgs Beach restroom renovations. The county also secured $520,000 for lighthouse renovations and stabilization. West Martello Tower, a Civil War-era fort that houses the Key West Garden Club will get $250,000 for air-conditioning and electrical upgrades, while the Custom House will receive $233,000 for protection and improvement of its archives. The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum will get $233,000 for exhibit space upgrades and building improvements. Key West’s Coffee Butler Amphitheater and the Oldest House Museum and Garden each is slated to receive $200,000 for improvements and upgrades. About $225,000 will go to coral reef conservation, and the Smathers Beach pavilions will get $198,000.

DAC V representing Key Largo allocated some $1.8 million out of the $2.6 million in requests for six capital projects during a recent meeting. Of the money the DAC is recommending the board of county commissioners approve, a little more than $830,000 would be for REEF’s Marine Conservation Center. According to a project application, the center will complement existing visitor attractions at the REEF campus, located at MM 98.3 in the median, while expanding marine conservation and cultural events throughout the year. The facility will include displays showing visitors the beauty and fragility of the Florida Keys natural habitats, as well as auditorium space for programs. 

A total of $500,000 was recommended for a third phase of work to install tiki huts at Rowell’s Waterfront Park. Per the project application, tiki huts would add value to the park by enhancing the beachfront area. An 8-acre waterfront park located at MM 104.5 bayside, Rowell’s Park entered phase one of upgrades last summer. The Board of County Commissioners bought Rowell’s Marina in December 2013 with the intention of making it into a public park. 

The DAC V also recommended $139,250 for Mote Marine Laboratory’s plan to propagate 2,750 staghorn corals and 1,750 elkhorn corals at Sand Island and French Reef Special Protected Area; $148,000 for the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s mooring anchor project at various reef sites; $224,250 to Coral Restoration Foundation’s plan to outplant 5,000 corals; and $30,000 to Jacobs Aquatic Center for a center pump and sand filter. 

DAC IV representing Islamorada recommended the county allocate $1.2 million out of $1.8 million in requests. A total of $115,000 would help restore Alligator Lighthouse. A total of $245,960 is recommended for an inclusive playground at Library Beach Park, while $306,750 is recommended to support Mote Marine Laboratory’s ongoing efforts to restore reef sites in Islamorada. The DAC also recommends a little more than $200,000 for REEF’s conservation center. 

DAC III in Marathon voted to recommend a total of $1.8 million in allocations for eligible capital projects at several Middle Keys tourist attractions for the 2023 fiscal year. A total of 10 out of 12 project applications totaling $2.3 million were funded. Of the projects, Pigeon Key is recommended to receive $166,050 for ADA ramp installation, along with $210,000 of a requested $252,000 for replacement of the Paint Foreman’s Dorm. The City of Marathon is recommended to receive $203,050 of a requested $273,140 for beach cleaning, along with full funding of a $245,000 request for restrooms at the upcoming Quay park redevelopment. Dolphin Research Center is recommended for $488,655 for construction of a new sea lion habitat.

DAC II representing the Lower Keys recommended $703,050 in funds for six projects. A total of $200,000 is recommended for the Pine Channel nature park trail enhancements. A pair of $100,000 requests were recommended for the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail Connection at Cudjoe and the Veterans Memorial Beach Facilities improvements.

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