From construction of new affordable housing units to funding to save the coral reef tract, Upper Keys Weekly is looking back to some of the top news stories in 2019. 

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Habitat for Humanity of the Upper Keys executive director Jack Niedbalski can’t wait to turn over the keys to those who will occupy the 16 townhomes at Windley Point. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Habitat homes filling large need

What was once a two- to three-home-a-year build for Habitat for Humanity of the Upper Keys has now turned to construction of 21 homes in 24 months. Habitat’s 16-unit project at Windley Point, which is directly oceanside to the OV and north of Theater of the Sea, is on its way as work continues toward getting first floors poured with concrete. Townhouse-style units will have two bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms. “It’s an exciting time for us,” Executive Director Jack Niedbalski said back in January. Construction continues on the townhomes. 


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From left, head coach Alphonso Bryant, Robbie Prosek, Rob Prosek and coach Herbert James. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Prosek stays a Cane

The 6’5’’, 225-pound Robbie Prosek inked his name on paper Feb. 6, taking his talents to the college level at the University of Miami. Surrounded by family, friends and coaches, Prosek said he wouldn’t be where he is without the support of his mom and dad. “They helped me through the difficult times and the easy stuff,” he said. Athletic director Rich Russell said the school and the athletic department are extremely proud of a great kid and a great athlete. “He’s really sort of the total package. He’s got a great personality and he’s a multi-sport athlete. He’s the real deal.” 


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Monroe County Facilities Maintenance workers Karel Alvarez (left) and Julio Mollineda install a new dugout roof at the Harry Harris Park ball fields. CONTRIBUTED

Harry Harris Park opens, welcomes back Little League 

Little Leaguers and coaches took to the Harry Harris ball field as families positioned their chairs to watch their little ones play. Activity finally returned to the ballpark on March 2 after damage sustained by Hurricane Irma. Tossing out the first pitch was Robert Glassmer, Monroe County administrator of buildings, parks and beaches in the Upper Keys. “It’s 100 percent brand-new and looks amazing,” he said. 


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Scott Baste and veteran Josh Collins paddle the Florida Bay from Tampa Bay en route to Key Largo. CONTRIBUTED

Vet, local paddle legend go 300 miles 

For the second time, veteran Josh Collins and local paddleboard legend Scott Baste paddled just over 300 miles on the Florida Bay from Tampa to Key Largo. The two completed the trip in five days and 22 hours. The two would paddle for about 20 hours before getting some rest. Baste noted that Collins had strong navigational skills during the night, and Baste had a better feel of the course’s bottom section with his local knowledge. Collins said paddling together was beneficial for using strengths and being there for one another’s weaknesses. Baste and Collins say they both hope to complete it for a third time, and do so with a few others.   


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Dr. Thomas Morrison poses with the Big Kahuna trophy following the awards ceremony at the Islander Conference Room. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Morrison wins Big Kahuna to benefit Good Health Clinic 

The 2019 Big Kahuna race saw four contestants stepping to the plate to raise funds for The Good Health Clinic, a free health care provider to uninsured and low-income residents in the Keys. During the awards ceremony on March 16 at the Islander Conference Center, Dr. Thomas Morrison, who raised $23,000, was named top fundraiser and Big Kahuna. The Kahuna competition alone raises roughly 20 percent of the clinic’s operating funds, and this year, Kahunas raised just over $64,000.


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The last class to graduate from ICS. From left, Zoe Manz, Mary Graf, Chelsea Basilius with Mr. Roper. CONTRIBUTED

ICS closes doors 

Despite strong community support and a time extension, Island Christian School announced in April that it would close its doors, having come up short on its goal to increase student enrollment. Founded by Tony Hammon in 1974, Island Christian School closed at the end of the 2018-19 school year. ICS opened with former Coral Shores High School teacher Hammon as its principal. Starting out with nine teachers and 54 students, ICS provided a quality Christian education to Florida Keys families. The school grew in size and attendance over the years. Demographics are changing in the Keys today, and Hammon says the student numbers aren’t there. “A 45-year reign is a pretty good reign for a school,” he said. 


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Chris Bell celebrates completion of the Crossing For A Cure Paddle with friends on June 15. CONTRIBUTED

Tavernier man paddles for cystic fibrosis awareness

On June 15, Tavernier resident Chris Bell was one of 200 to complete the 80-mile Crossing For A Cure Paddle from Bimini, Bahamas to the Florida mainland. The challenge, which began four years ago, was inspired because of the health benefits of the ocean for those living with cystic fibrosis, a terminal lung disease. Bell said he loves paddling, but hadn’t done much long-distance — especially one of this magnitude. 


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The first all-female Scouts BSA troop in the Florida Keys. Members include Mallory Hughes, Chloe Lopez, Jessica Hartsing, Calista Wittke, Lilly Pegues, Claire Stogner and Scoutmaster Kathleen Pegues. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

First all-female troop wins highest award

Kathleen Pegues and her daughter Lilly formed the all-female Cub Scout Pack 914 in September 2018. Since then, the pack, who call themselves the Timberwolves, have grown together and excelled in their new scouting world. In June, four of the girls officially earned the “Arrow of Light” rank, the highest award in Cub Scouting, and Cub Scout Pack 914 officially graduated to Troop 914. “These girls are the first females in the Keys and some of the first in the entire country to cross over,” Pegues said. “Talk about being poised for greatness and filling a need for this community!”


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Members of the Rotary Club of Key Largo Sunset, which now has just over 40 members. CONTRIBUTED

Key Largo Sunset Rotary charter official

There’s a new Rotary Club that’s bringing all sorts of energy and excitement to the community. On Aug. 10, Rotary Club of Key Largo Sunset had its charter celebration at Key Largo Marriott Conference Center. The club, which now has more than 40 members, received its official charter from Rotary International on June 5. Rotary Club of Key Largo sponsored the club, which began as a satellite in October 2018. The club’s president is Lisa Feliciano.  


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An early architectural rendering of CFK’s new Upper Keys Center in Key Largo. CONTRIBUTED

New campus coming to Upper Keys 

College of the Florida Keys president Jonathan Gueverra remembers speaking to Rotary clubs and commerce chambers in the Upper Keys roughly seven years ago. Entering as the college’s sixth president, he mentioned that the school was going to have a better facility in the Upper Keys. “I had no clue how we were going to do it. I just knew that, A, people weren’t getting what they really deserved, and B, that there had to be a way to do that,” he said. Today, the College of the Florida Keys’ Upper Keys Center is in motion thanks to a $16 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, several millions from local sources and the generosity of the Waterman family, who agreed to sell the old Shell World property at MM 106.4 at a price the college could afford. The center is slated to welcome students in summer 2021.The new facility will replace the college’s increasingly limited space at Coral Shores High School. 


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Kylie Frey performs on stage at the Help for Hope Town benefit concert on Nov. 2 at Postcard Inn. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Coming to the aid of the Bahamas 

The Keys community came out in strong support for those affected by Hurricane Dorian. Rotary clubs in the Upper Keys mobilized quickly following the storm, packing several shipping containers of items to help the recovery. The first shipment on Sept. 7 brought 53 tons of supplies to Bahamians. Monetary donations raised by the Upper Keys Rotary Club exceeded $55,000. On Nov. 2, A Help for Hope Town Benefit Concert, headlined by country singer-songwriter David Lee Murphy, raised $40,000 for Southeast Rescue & Relief. The event, held at Postcard Inn, was organized by Sam and Timmy Arce. 


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One of the seven iconic reef sites, Cheeca Rocks, is dominated by large populations of star corals and other boulder corals. FKNMS, NOAA/Contributed

NOAA launches mission with partners to restore iconic reefs

On Dec. 9, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced an ambitious plan to restore seven reefs within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). The effort is one of the largest investments in coral restoration in the world. The concept to focus on is coral cover, or how much live stony coral covers the reef surface. Florida traditionally enjoyed 25% to 40% coral coverage, but this number has fallen catastrophically, to just 1% to 2% today. While the excitement was fresh, several in the room were quick to inquire about the one particular boundary — the money. Phase 1 of the mission aims to raise coral cover to 15% within 10 years. The work is predicted to take 5 to 7 years and cost $97 million. Sarah Fangman, the executive director of the sanctuary, said no one has written a check yet, but they’re working with agencies and officials to bring resources.” 


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Stillwright Point residents stand on North Blackwater Lane, which once was filled with water for just over 90 days. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

Flood-free finally for Key Largo community

It all began in early September as a king tide rolled in, covering roads and streets inside the Stillwright Point community at MM 105, bayside, in Key Largo. Despite their relief — after waters receded in November — the neighbors were quick to point out that the respite from flood waters couldn’t detract from the overall message: 91 days underwater was too long. They would plead their case before county commissioners, calling for studies to stop and action to start to prevent another flood like this. County commissioners voted unanimously to prioritize the modeling of the Stillwright neighborhood to determine recommended road adaptations, cost and related policy decisions in the Road Vulnerability Analysis.

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