Now more accessible than ever for locals and visitors, Pigeon Key has spent the last 13 months securing $1.8 million in grants and sponsorship funds to bolster island upgrades and ongoing historic preservation efforts. Photo by PIGEON KEY FOUNDATION/Contributed

The Pigeon Key Express began bringing visitors out to one of the Middle Keys’ most historic islands in 2022. But ask the island’s head honcho, and Pigeon Key’s forward progress has been full steam ahead for years before that.

Kelly McKinnon is the executive director of the Pigeon Key Foundation, the nonprofit stewards of Monroe County’s 30-plus-year National Historic Landmark. On Dec. 13, McKinnon made his annual presentation to the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners to outline the past year of work for the tiny island at the end of the Old Seven Mile Bridge, detailing projects powered by more than $1.8 million in grant and sponsorship funds in just 13 months.

Several of the island’s upgrades are plain to see for the growing crowds that have returned to the attraction, bolstered by the reopening of Old Seven and the running of the iconic blue-and-yellow train after 15 years of ferry service to the island. A $142,000 investment will soon repaint the exterior of every building on Pigeon Key, while more than $250,000 will cement the foundation’s commitment to greater accessibility with critical ADA ramps and replacement of nearly 7,000 square feet of sidewalks. A $500,000 Florida Division of Historical Resources grant will fund vital repairs to six historic buildings, and even the island’s single dock, hailed by the admittedly-biased McKinnon as “the best in Monroe County,” will soon undergo structural repairs and see another ADA ramp for guests arriving by water.

Other enhancements, though tougher to catch with the untrained eye, are no less critical to preserving the island’s historic structures – including a recently-completed $1.3 million fire sprinkler system install and nearly $800,000 for an on-island wastewater treatment system. 

In a phone interview with the Weekly, McKinnon credited the January 2022 reopening of Old Seven, closed to pedestrians in 2016, as the catalyst for the island’s two years of exponential progress. 2023 in particular saw a resurgence of local events returning to Pigeon Key, from its Movies by the Sea programs to support of other nonprofits’ fundraisers and gatherings – and its always-sold-out summer camps.

“There’s no question that the bridge has been a tremendous blessing, and the only way that we were going to maximize the potential of the island,” he said. “But the additional exposure that the train has, coming back and forth across that bridge and going into town, is kind of unprecedented. The economic engine that that bridge creates for all the Keys, and the same for Pigeon Key, is solid for the community as a whole.”

McKinnon touted half a dozen event, educational and science-based partnerships for the island as a particular source of pride, highlighting a decade-long pairing with Valdosta State University to conduct medical experiments in Pigeon Key’s nearshore waters that contribute to development of pharmaceuticals for Alzheimer’s, HIV and various forms of cancer.

Commissioner Michelle Lincoln lauded McKinnon’s report as the “first good news” the commission heard in nearly three elapsed hours of its meeting, calling Pigeon Key a “true gem” in the Keys community.

“As I listen to this report, I can’t help but think back to the early ’90s when Pigeon Key Foundation was awarded a contract to try and rehabilitate all those old buildings out there that had been neglected for years,” said county commissioner David Rice. “The things you’re going over today would have seemed impossible then. Congratulations.”

Alex Rickert
Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.