CRUISE SHIPS: IS KEY WEST CRUISIN’ TO A LAWSUIT?

Key West officials on July 12 echoed the desire of the Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships to apply the voter-approved cruise ship reductions at all three cruise ship piers — Mallory Pier, Outer Mole and the privately owned Pier B.

“There should be no special carve-outs or exemptions,” Arlo Haskell, treasurer of Safer Cleaner Ships, said at the July 12 workshop. “Allowing a single pier to operate without limits would allow 365 large ships a year — one each day. This would barely be an improvement from the status quo.”

But requiring a private business — Pier B — to turn away the majority of its customers — cruise ships — presents a problem that will cost the city dearly, city attorney Shawn Smith repeatedly warned the elected lawmakers.

“I think Pier B sues us. I don’t think it’s a threat. I think it’s legitimate. And I think it’ll be for breach of contract and an interstate commerce claim. This will be Duck Tours on steroids,” Smith said. (The city had to pay $8 million in the early 2000s after the courts ruled that the city’s actions had put a private tour company out of business.)

In addition, Smith reminded the commission, the city has a contract with Pier B that for nearly 30 years has given 25% of Pier B’s cruise ship revenues to the city. That contract renews every 10 years unless both parties agree to end it. When Mayor Teri Johnston asked Smith how the city can get out of that contract, Smith replied, “We pay.”

Despite support for the voters and Safer Cleaner Ships. Commissioner Sam Kaufman also acknowledged that a costly lawsuit from Pier B could bankrupt the city.

In order to forecast various scenarios, Keys Weekly analyzed the past five years of cruise ship data, provided by Caribe Nautical, the local ship’s agent that coordinates schedules with the city of Key West and Pier B for each of the three piers. 

Key West city attorney Shawn Smith warned the city commissioners on July 12 that the owners of Pier B cruise ship dock will sue the city for breach of contract if the city attempts to restrict their cruise ship operations. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

Over the past five years, from fiscal year 2014-15 through fiscal year 2018-19 (not counting the partial year of 2019-20, when COVID canceled cruise travel), an average of 348 ships per year have visited Key West, with 63% of them (218) coming to Pier B. The Outer Mole hosted 26%, or an average of 92 ships per year, and Mallory saw an average of 38 ships per year, or 11%, according to Caribe Nautical data.

“Yes, the contract with Pier B allows them to have seven ships a week, or one per day, but that never happens due to the scheduling of cruise itineraries, which begin on a weekend,” said John Wells, the retired founder of Caribe Nautical and an outspoken opponent of Safer Cleaner Ships and drastic cruise ship reductions. 

“If the city allows Pier B to continue to operate as usual while issues are negotiated, I’d estimate that Pier B could accommodate 225 to 250 ships a year,” Wells said. “If Pier B becomes the only cruise dock in town, we’d see a 40 to 45% reduction in cruise ships. Pier B cannot absorb all the ships from Mallory and the Mole. There won’t be 365 ships a year.”

Wells said he’d like to see a citizens working group created to discuss and resolve cruise ship issues, “much like Mayor Richard Heyman did in the 1980s to reach a compromise between cruise ships at Mallory Pier and the sunset celebration performers. Heyman worked out an agreement in which ships must depart 45 minutes before sunset, with 12 special exceptions allowed each year. That was an exercise in leadership by a mayor.”

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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.