Photos by Josie Koler
For close to two years, a dedicated group entitled The Friends of Higgs Beach have been holding public meetings, and collaborating with local officials, county officials, and an architect to come up with the best plan possible to give Higgs Beach a much needed facelift. After much review, consideration, public input and compromise, they believe they have a final plan that best represents the overall needs of our community.
This Wednesday, County Commissioners will vote on the details
“I come here every other day, probably. I have two girls and they all have something to do.”
Andrea Scepkova is chasing the American dream in the Keys. Cleaning houses for her own company and chasing after her brood of three every other day at Astro City Playground; six-year old Emma, four-year old Annie, and her son, Samuel who’s about to turn one.
“I like it here. The playground is separate from the water, and it’s safe here. I like it. I like the gate so the kids cannot runaway. The kids can run and do whatever they want.”
The playground sits on sand and in between metal, chain-link fences, and is across the street from Higgs Beach, the parking lot, public restrooms, the beach, the sand volleyball court, and Salute! Higgs Beach is the only county controlled park in the county.
At the same time Scepkova played with her children, retired interior designer Toni Burnett is relaxing outside of Salute! with a glass of Pinot Grigio, part of her routine five days a week. She lives in a condo at 1800 Atlantic and thinks the beach and restaurant is charming. She also does something many passing residents do not. She interacts with the homeless, and has even prepared them a meal.
“They’re very nice. I did a Christmas dinner for them, and they could not have been nicer. I don’t know totally what’s going on for plans to improve this place, but I would like more facilities for the homeless. I know some of them by name. I don’t know where they go at night.”
The layout plan includes, notably, improved security and increased activity. Two facets, Mayor Heather Carruthers, who lives in the district and walks her dog to the park, believes will both make the area more appealing to everyone.
“The number one issue is security. Sometimes there are folks who can congregate there who can be belligerent and aggressive to residents using the park. We can take certain action such as having a deputy sheriff at the beach patrolling. But, the best way to limit behaviors are to replace with the kinds of things you want to see; such as, bike riding, a playground on the beach, and volleyball games. Being homeless is not illegal.”
In fact, Key West Mayor Craig Cates’ homeless taskforce is committed to finding a solution, an alternative place for the homeless to hang out.
“Everybody in this county understand this is a multi-faceted issue,” reminds Mayor Carruthers. “We see more homeless because of our climate, and we have to be willing to address it. The more activity we have at Higgs Beach the safer people will feel. What we hope to do is an interesting process. We want this to be a community-based playground, which means capturing the character of Key West in the playground. On Marco Island, they have a pirate ship incorporated into their play equipment. Because of the strong military presence here we may have something very exciting plopped into the lot.”
County Administrator Roman Gastesi is often spotted riding his bike on the path on the beach or eating dinner at Salute! His sentiments are: the more water and sand we can offer for a setting for parents and their children to mingle amidst, the better! Plus, he points out, the biggest perk is the project will not be paid for with property tax dollars.
“This is a self-sustaining project as far as the operational costs. The vendors and TDC (Tourist Development Council) provide a revenue stream.
No property tax dollars are involved and I think that’s impressive. We’ll be able to bring in more vendors in the future. Parks are not money-makers but need to be self-sustaining.”
There are interim and long-term plans for Higgs Beach with the goal of integrating all upgrades through a master plan instead of a “patchy” layout the beach and park appears to be comprised of now.
The playground is on one side, the restrooms on the other. There are disjointed sections of the park and the community requested we start looking at this,” reminds Mayor Carruthers. “My constituents came to me two years ago asking what they could about the quality of the park and amenities. We have community events there and local taxpayers feel the property has been neglected. It is showing signs of wear and tear. TDC funds are available and other grants will be available over time.”
All of the playground will come to the beach and the pavilions incorporated within the playground to act as shade for parents watching their children play.
The plan is one Andrea will be watching unfold and soon she could be chasing her brood of three on the beach, on the other side of the Atlantic.
“There was a couple times the homeless were kind of loud. They had some kind of party there. But, this park, this is separate from the beach and the tourists. I like it here. I like where it is. Here it is just kids.”
The County Commission will vote on the plan Wednesday, January 19 at 11 am at the Harvey Government Center.
• Improved Security
• Improved parking
• New and safer playground
• Children no longer crossing a busy street from the playground to use a restroom
• Remove Pavilions,
• New information center will tie Key West into the Scenic Florida Highway
THE FRIENDS OF HIGGS BEACH, INC.
Sam Holland, Jr.
Plan F – Plan being presented for approval at the 1/19/11 BOCC meeting
Jennifer Eichenlaub a sous chef for Salute chats with local resident Toni Burnett after her shift.