Fantasy Fest was officially canceled nearly two months ago. It’s the unofficial crowds that concern Key West officials.

City Manager Greg Veliz told the city commissioners at their 4-½-hour meeting Oct. 6 that he’s been monitoring social media discussions as well as local hotel occupancy expectations.

“I got an email (Tuesday, Oct. 6) that said the 20 to 50% occupancy predictions from last week are climbing,” Veliz said. “The numbers are climbing as we speak.”

He referred to the week of the canceled Fantasy Fest, Oct. 17-24, as “un-Fantasy Fest” and said the police and city staff are preparing to handle crowd control. Street barricades may soon be visible along Duval Street, ready to be deployed to close downtown blocks in the event of large crowds.

The city would use the bollards, or barricades, to close the streets, with the intent of avoiding large crowds packed together on the sidewalks, and provide extra room in the streets, Veliz said. But he warned the commissioners he cannot promise that the city will be able to enforce social distancing protocols among such crowds.

“Well, we can’t enforce our mask ordinance for individual people, so we’re stuck with what the governor ordered,” Commissioner Sam Kaufman said, commending Veliz on his handling and monitoring of the situation as it unfolds.

Police discipline

Veliz opened his report Tuesday evening with the news that he had disciplined the police chief, two police captains and a few other officers for helping Chief Sean Brandenburg move into a new house while on duty, in uniform and driving city vehicles.

Veliz did not specify the terms of the disciplinary action, but said the chief and officers have been cooperative. He added that he decided, in spite of his lapse in judgment, to allow Brandenburg and the others to continue their careers with the department. 

Halloween in Key West

Veliz also discussed plans for Halloween, calling traditional trick-or-treating “a high-risk” exposure, but he emphasized that it is not a city-sponsored event. The city, however, is supporting a new Halloween event at the Coffee Butler Amphitheater that will allow for socially distanced trick-or-treating, Veliz said. 

More than 40 local businesses have gotten involved with the Mom & Pop Key West group that’s hosting the event from 5 to 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 31. Businesses will have decorated tables and will provide treats to costumed kids 13 and younger. Pre-registration will be required so groups of children can be spread out and assigned a designated time slot. The event is free, but registration is required. Registration information will be available Oct. 10.

Mallory Square restaurant negotiations end

Commissioners voted 3-2 to end nearly a decade of negotiations with restaurateur Joe Walsh, who has been trying to develop a restaurant at Mallory Square that whole time. The negotiations have been marred by legal wrangling from both sides, concerns from the city’s planning staff and opposition from the neighbors at Margaritaville Key West Resort & Marina.

Veliz said he wants to start fresh rather than continuing to spend years trying “to fit a square peg into a round hole.”

Mayor Teri Johnston and Kaufman opposed the ending of negotiations, with Johnston saying, “We keep hearing from so many people how difficult it is to work with the city. We make people jump through hoops. We delay things until they miss a whole season of revenue. It’s hard to get to yes with the city. And now, here we have a waterfront property at Mallory Square that we’ve left vacant and almost in disrepair for 10 years.”

She added that the city has missed out on nearly $3 million in rent and other revenue over the past 10 years of negotiations. 

“That’s a really bad decision by us for the taxpayers,” Johnston said.

Concern over employee’s raise

Commissioner Billy Wardlow raised a concern about the new executive assistant to the mayor and commissioners receiving a pay raise when such raises were canceled for all city employees.

Mayor Teri Johnston said the raise was agreed to before the pay raises were canceled and said, “I gave up a $15,000 part-time position to accommodate that one increase.”

Wardlow emphasized, “I don’t think it’s fair to the other city employees and I don’t think our employees will be happy.”

Former commissioner Margaret Romero echoed Wardlow’s concerns during the citizens’ comments period at the end of the meeting. 

Self-storage proposal on boulevard

Preliminary discussions call for a self-storage business at the corner of First Street and North Roosevelt Boulevard in Key West. Opposition from neighbors and concern from officials prompted the applicants to rework their plans. CONTRIBUTED

Attorney Bart Smith at the Oct. 6 meeting withdrew his clients’ request to begin negotiations to construct a large new self-storage facility at the corner of First Street and North Roosevelt Boulevard. The new self-storage business would replace the current Shell station and the Sunshine Scooter Rental business that are currently on neighboring lots at that corner.

Smith’s Sarasota-based clients want to combine those two lots to create one large parcel, Smith said, acknowledging the vehement opposition from nearby neighbors. He vowed to work with those neighbors to assuage their concerns, as well as add landscaping and public art to the project as it moves forward. He withdrew the current request to negotiate.

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