Young man on the beach by the sea, vacation concept.

Once the Florida Keys reopened following COVID shutdowns, the pandemic packed the island chain for more than two years. Hotel rates and monthly rental costs were among the highest in the country.

The unprecedented visitor numbers for fiscal years 2020/21 and 2021/22 yielded a $25 million revenue surplus for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (TDC), which collects a four-cent “bed tax” on every dollar spent at Florida Keys hotels and lodging establishments.  The TDC uses bed tax revenues to advertise the Florida Keys and its five individual regions, to promote events that bring people to town and to fund large capital, or construction, projects that enhance tourism.

Now, the county’s elected officials want to use the $25 million tourism windfall on “public facilities projects” — and eventually, on affordable housing, according to County Mayor Craig Cates. 

At the May 17 county commission meeting, officials scheduled a public hearing for June 21 to add “public facilities projects” to the list of allowable TDC expenditures. If approved on June 21, then infrastructure upgrades such as transportation, sewers, drainage and potable water projects will be eligible for TDC funding.

“Once we get approval for the public facility expenditures at the public hearing, my whole goal is to be able to use TDC money for housing,” Cates told the Keys Weekly on May 19. “Whether that requires state legislative permission, or an Attorney’s General’s opinion, that’s the goal.”

Cates added that only surplus bed tax revenues would be spent on public facility projects, so the funds spent on advertising, events and capital projects to enhance tourism will not suffer.

Meanwhile, tourism and lodging experts are warning people not to count their surplus eggs before they hatch.

“We didn’t think we’d come back from the COVID shutdown as quickly and as earnestly as we have,” TDC director Stacey Mitchell told the Keys Weekly on May 17. “For nearly three years, we had zero competition from other destinations. People couldn’t go to the Caribbean. They couldn’t go to Europe. And they couldn’t take cruises.

“We’ve certainly reaped the benefits, but I’ve warned every entity that will listen: Enjoy it now because business is leveling off. Monroe County’s bed tax collections are $4 million less than last fiscal year. Key West’s collections are down by $2.1 million,” Mitchell said.

“ Am I panicking? Not at all. I knew this day was coming. I hope our business community has prepared for it.”

Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.