While Marathon earned its moniker from the laborers toiling on the Overseas Railway, property rights were the main catalyst for the incorporation of the Middle Keys hamlet.
“You couldn’t do a damn thing,” said former Marathon Mayor Mike Cinque. “Marathon kept running into the same brick wall – Monroe County’s Comp Plan. We couldn’t get a permit to do anything because everything in town was non-conforming according to Monroe County’s Comp Plan.”
“The county back then was pro-Key West in my opinion,” said Marathon Lumber’s Dale Baker. “Everything came and went by the way of Key West. We were paying taxes and nothing was being built here in Marathon.”
“We were sending $6 million a year to Key West through a line on a tax bill called ‘Municipal Service Taxing Unit’ and had nothing to show for it,” said local Realtor Karen Farley-Wilkinson.
The catalyst for incorporation occurred in the first week of September ’96 when Cinque placed five concrete tables behind his restaurant, the Stuffed Pig.
“I got red-tagged,” he said. “They said I ‘increased the use of an established business without acquiring a conditional use permit.’”
Facing a $100-a-day fine, Cinque took the matter to court, where he won, but the revolution was born when he delivered a $350 check to Keys Sign Services owner Dick Schultz, who created four banners prophesizing “Welcome to the Future City of Marathon.” One banner went above the sign shop, another at Dick Ramsay’s Surfside Auto Repair, the third at Baker’s Marathon Lumber and one at the Stuffed Pig.
Soon after Cinque, Schultz, Farley-Wilkinson and (now deceased) Alan Fletcher formed the “Citizens to Incorporate Marathon” as a legal entity to fundraise and lobby the state for independence.
“Alan Fletcher was the key guy,” said Bob Miller, a prominent local attorney who would later serve as the city’s first mayor.
Fletcher, a respected businessman with a degree in economics, had brought Miller in to serve as the mouthpiece for the movement at rallies and on the radio.
“The toughest part was convincing State Senator Darryl Jones from Miami,” said Farley-Wilkinson’s husband, Bill Wilkinson. “They tried it twice before and it didn’t work.”
“We sat down with State Senator Jones,” said Miller. “He said, ‘I don’t believe the time is right’ and was concerned the community leaders were not behind it.”
Armed with two fax machines, Karen Farley-Wilkinson started blasting the senator’s office with letters of support from the community.
“All day long we were faxing these letters,” said Bill. “They finally called and said, ‘We get it. Please stop.’”
In order to get the resolution through the State House and Senate, they had to prove Marathon was in fact a donor community for the county.
Fletcher and Marathon Electric Sign Company’s Randy Mearns were tasked with proving Marathon could maintain all the services provided by the county without raising taxes.
State Rep. Ken Sorenson was the first to sign on, followed soon after by Senator Jones.
2,700 residents of Marathon would vote on Nov. 2, 1999.
“We threw some campaign parties and got people registered to vote,” said Cinque. “We got more and more people to volunteer. (John) Bartus came on board and he did a lot of stuff for us.”
“We ran it just like a professional campaign,” said Wilkinson. “There were nights we were at Bob Miller’s office and called a couple thousand people.”
On election night, a nervous Mike Cinque sat at a table behind the Pig.
“I imagined I could hear the printing press running,” he recalled. “They are printing out stacks of red tags and everything in this town will get red-tagged if we lost. But we won 67% to 33%.”
A LOOK BACK AT 20 YEARS OF CITY OF MARATHON HISTORY
When the City of Marathon was created in 1999, the residents of Marathon voted overwhelmingly in favor of incorporation — 67%. To many it seemed preposterous, but possible, given the recent incorporation of the Village of Islamorada in 1998.
The general consensus was it was possible to get more bang for our buck (instead of seeing taxes siphoned off for projects in Key West) and also possible to create a “kinder, gentler” city more responsive to neighbors needs.
Here’s a look back at some remarkable feats:
1999 – Marathon incorporates and begins operations with two leased management companies. M.K. Causley and his staff became the building department. The city also hired Moyer and Associates, with city manager Craig Wrathell, to establish and run the City of Marathon with a skeleton crew of two or three administrators. “Moyer and Associates operated water management and taxing districts in other parts of Florida,” said attorney Frank Greenman. “They were very attentive to what we though Marathon should be. It worked pretty well.”
1999 – With the passage of House Bill No. 1993, the State of Florida mandates that the Keys install advanced wastewater treatment systems. At the time, it was an unfunded mandate and a deadline of 2010 was set.
2000 – City of Marathon and the Rotary Club of Marathon partner to create the new Rotary Park. In 2002, Sombrero Beach is redeveloped to feature ADA-compliant restrooms and facilities, a grassy lawn, and sturdy pavilions. Since then, the Jessie Hobbs park has been spruced up, restrooms added to Coco Plum Beach, and the Oceanfront Park behind City Hall was created. Currently, the former Quay property and the Sunset Bay Park on Grassy Key are slated for development.
“The facilities we inherited from Monroe County were good, but the potential was not fully developed. I give credit to former Parks and Recreation Department’s Jimmy Schmitt,” said former mayor Jeff Pinkus.
“I love the Parks and Recreation Department, seeing the parks full of people and events,” said Debbie Struyf. “And there are so many kids programs that are offered now.”
2001 – First mooring balls — 26 in total — are installed in Boot Key Harbor. In 2002, the harbor had grown to include 64 mooring balls. Marathon currently manages 226 mooring balls. “I think the stunning star of the City of Marathon is the marina,” said Pinkus. “It’s one of the best marinas in South Florida, and one of the best, if not the best, anchorages.” Indeed, Boot Key Harbor is one of the largest “neighborhoods” in Marathon.
2001 — Bicycle “Joanie” Nelson runs for Marathon City Council. She would go on to run in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.
2003 – The Marathon Weekly newspaper established.
2005 – First lighting of Fred, the tree on the old 7 Mile Bridge by persons unknown.
2005 – Hurricane Wilma is a late-season storm that floods the Keys with minimal winds. Many homes are flooded, cars are destroyed and one yahoo rides a Jet Ski down the Marathon airport’s flooded runway to the delight of everyone.
2005 – Kate and Jason Koler assume ownership of the Weekly Newspapers. The purchase would be finalized in 2006.
2007 – Marathon Firehouse, station No. 14, is completed at a cost of $6.1 million. It was fabricated from composite concrete slabs over precast joists, at the time a new construction trend.
2007 – Marathon’s first private practice attorney Ralph Cunningham and state representative dies.
2007 – City of Marathon hires Planning Director George Garrett.
2008 – Miami Subs closes after owner Santiago Adames is involved in a serious car accident.
2008 – The inaugural Best of Marathon Awards is held at the old Jaycee Building on 33rd St.
2009 – The Chaplin family opens Chappy’s at the foot of the 7 Mile Bridge. A year later John Kotch would purchase the landmark and rename the restaurant “Sunset Grille.”
2009 — Boot Key Bridge “pinned” open and closed to car traffic.
2010 –The City of Marathon’s advanced wastewater treatment system is largely complete, the stormwater infrastructure is functioning, and all of the roads had been repaved. This is a monumental feat mentioned by many in the short history of Marathon; most residents had to be convinced it was a priority to replace the aging septic systems and cesspits to protect nearshore water quality or face being sanctioned by Tallahassee. After receiving two bids for $180 million — which did not include stormwater function or repaving — the City of Marathon broke ranks and asked the state for the authority to install its own systems. Former finance director Peter Rosasco said, “We had no plan, no way to finance it, and the cost was going to bankrupt the entire city and all the residents.”
The city and Rosasco found a way, though, with the use of a newly created program called a state revolving loan. Over the years, the city would apply for grants to help offset the entire $126.5 million cost which included the stormwater and repaving projects.
Marathon’s wastewater system was also notable because the municipality was an “early adopter.” At the time, no other municipality had an advanced wastewater treatment facility. Although there were scattered “package plants,” and Key West and Key Colony Beach had systems, they were very basic.
“I have to give credit to Frank Greenman, Bob Miller, John Bartus, Randy Mearns and Jeff Pinkus,” Rosasco said of the city’s founders. “It took wisdom and courage.”
2010 – One of Gov. Rick Scott’s first moves on being elected governor is to grant the City of Marathon 100 “transitional development rights” or the right to build extra hotel rooms as a boost to the city’s tourism trade and economy. “That’s how many resorts were rebuilt,” said Frank Greenman. “It was an opportunity staring at us right from the beginning.”
2011 – Clarence Clemons, noted Marathon resident and former saxophonist of Bruce Springstein’s E Street band, dies.
2012 — 7 Mile Bridge Run is cancelled due to a terrifying thunder and lightning storm.
2013 – City of Marathon passes the “pig law” among much squealing from porcine pet lovers; it was later softened.
2014 – Keys Strength and Conditioning and Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters open in Marathon. Salty’s burns to the ground.
2014 – Marathon Councilwoman Ginger Snead resigns; John Bartus appointed to fill her spot. Councilman Chris Bull resigns in 2015; Bartus nominated again to fill that term.
2015 – City of Marathon hires manager Chuck Lindsey.
2015 – Marathon’s Publix supermarket is expanded and reconfigured, and a liquor store is added. The store originally opened in 1997.
2016 – The new Marathon City Hall is unveiled. Previously, the city operated out of trailers on the same property. Construction started in 2014 to build the 15,000 square foot facility at a cost of $5 million.
2016 – Old 7 Mile Bridge closes for repairs. Set to open in December of 2021, the project cost is $77 million — borne by the state, county and Marathon — and includes 30 years of maintenance costs.
2017 – Hurricane Irma hits the Florida Keys. While the damage was catastrophic in the Lower Keys, Marathon most likely had the MOST amount of damage. Initial reports put the number of destroyed buildings at 198 (although that would be reduced to 114), and 580 buildings suffered major damage. The City of Marathon was one of the first to begin picking up debris — remember sorting it into piles of construction, vegetation and appliances? — and it was carted to three major locations: at the high school, next to The Hurricane, and at the golf course. The city’s reserve fund of $16 million was immediately depleted just by the debris costs, and in total the municipality suffered $32 million in damage. Countywide, about 1,300 boats sank and countless cars drowned. “Responding to and recovering from Hurricane Irma with little or no federal or state assistance, is one of Marathon’s biggest achievements,” said City Manager Chuck Lindsey. “To date our external debt is zero and projects continue to be completed one at a time. It continues to be extremely challenging and much more needs to be done, but I am extremely proud and thankful of where we are.”
2018 – Gov. Rick Scott grants Monroe County 1,300 additional rights to build new affordable and workforce housing. The gift is being appealed in Key West, Marathon and Islamorada by citizens concerned it will negatively impact quality of life and hurricane evacuation.
2018 – Groundbreaking for massive Stanley Switlik Elementary renovation set to cost $37 million.
2019 – Marathon High School’s new athletic complex is unveiled. Stanley Switlik Elementary renovation is underway.
2019 – Since 2015, the City of Marathon’s first-time homebuyer program has provided $390,000 in funds to assist 39 families with the purchase of their first house.
2020 – Planning and saving for Marathon’s community pool begins? Also, world peace and civil discourse between politicians?
LOST BUT NOT FORGOTTEN:
Irma & Bob Stout
Leigh Ann’s Coffee House
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS
“What sticks out for me is the kind-heartedness of our community, not one specific event but all the impromptu fundraisers we hold whenever a local is in need. Second would be the community protesting Winn-Dixie possibly closing The Brass Monkey and getting petitions signed and throwing a party in the parking lot.”
- Michelle Coldiron
“The moment Jeff Pinkus took off Mike Puto’s name tag, erased the word ‘acting’ and made him the official city manager. Those were tough times, and he was there for the whole thing.”
- Peter Rosasco, on the realization after a nationwide search that the best candidate for city manager was “Mr. Marathon.”
“The biggest accomplishment I have ever seen was the return after Hurricane Irma. The council and city manager, along with their teams, made this pace livable and safe in a matter of two weeks. I understand residents may have been upset but I have been in areas where this did not happen and it was a disaster.”
- Teresa Konrath