Gerald Ford was president the last time Key West made a concerted effort to upgrade and improve Duval Street. Telephones had cords, airplanes had smoking sections and Key West, like the rest of the country, was preparing for the nation’s bicentennial celebration.

It was 1976.

Charles “Sonny” McCoy was mayor of Key West and two young businessmen named Ed Swift and Chris Belland had just started buying and renovating dilapidated buildings along Duval Street.

The city’s “Downtown ’76” project, according to the federal directory of cities’ bicentennial programs, included “the facelifting of old buildings, the widening of sidewalks and extensive planting and beautification of Duval Street.”

“It’s about time,” City Manager Greg Veliz said on Jan. 10 while speaking with Key West’s director of engineering, Steve McAlearney, whose department recently issued a request for qualifications, seeking firms that would like to oversee the revitalization of Duval Street.

“The goal of the project is to renovate and revitalize Duval Street to increase opportunities for public use as an iconic civic space for leisure, commerce, and tourism; address the infrastructure which will allow for reasonable maintenance frequency and reduce costs to businesses and taxpayers; improve safety for pedestrians and vehicles; and maintain mobility for desired transit operations for all users,” the RFQ states.

“We say this is the most iconic street we’ve got, and yet we’ve put no money into it,” Mayor Teri Johnston told The Weekly on Jan. 13. “We need to make Duval Street much more welcoming and inviting and we gave the companies a blank slate to work with.”

“The RFQ asked companies to tell us everything they can offer, from handling stormwater and infrastructure on Duval Street to the final landscaping,” McAlearney said. “We’ve received responses from eight really good companies and we’ll open bids on Feb. 19.”

Once the proposals are opened, an evaluation committee of both city staff and qualified community members will rank the responses and make a recommendation to the City Commission.

“But everyone will have plenty of input at plenty of public meetings,” Veliz said, emphasizing that whichever firm is selected will be required to involve the community in the decision-making process.

City officials, and many, though not all, business owners on and surrounding the city’s iconic tourism corridor have said they’re excited to see what’s possible — once the city paves the way for improvement, quite literally.

In a community where common ground can be a precious commodity, the near-unanimous priority is the repaving of Duval Street.

“First and foremost definitely has to be road repairs,” said Bill Lay, who has owned La Trattoria restaurant on Duval Street since 2006. “And it’s not going to be easy. Just as North Roosevelt Boulevard is better now after we overhauled that. But once the road is fixed, then we can focus on the revitalization. Duval Street is dated. There’s no doubt. And Michael Halpern opened the door to what things could look like with the new pocket park in the 1400 block of Duval that looks fantastic.

“I just ask the city, please don’t drag your feet on this,” Lay said. “This shouldn’t take years and years. Let’s move on this.”

But former city commissioner and current candidate for mayor Mark Rossi, who owns a complex of bars in the 200 block of Duval Street, said he thinks the road repairs are as far as the city should go.

“Yes, we need to fix the potholes, but other than that, I think it’s fine the way it is,” Rossi said. “I’d rather take the money we’re gonna spend on Duval and spend it on the locals’ quality of life. I own a tourism business, but right now, residents aren’t getting their fair share. We can do a fluff-and-buff cleanup, but other than that, let’s not waste taxpayers’ money on this.”

Duval Street real estate broker Will Langley with Berkshire Hathaway agrees with Lay about the importance of Duval improvements.

Langley not only handles commercial leases for Duval Street property owners, but he also works every day from his office at the corner of Eaton and Duval.

“A lot of good businesses on Duval Street are begging for something new to happen down here,” Langley said. “I love the new sidewalk dining option, and the thought of wider, uncluttered sidewalks is great. A rising tide lifts all ships, and more people will come to Duval and the surrounding businesses if we make it a better place to be.”

City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley said he’s excited to see what the firms propose, and he reminded each that the street needs to continue to serve multiple purposes, from parades and street fairs to concerts, sidewalk dining and other events.,

“We’ve also asked our lobbyists to help us identify possible grant money that’s available for this type of revitalization,” Weekley said. 

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