Many Key West business owners are preparing for the island’s June 1 reopening to visitors, but for others, it’s simply too late.
An increasing number of Key West businesses have thrown in the towel, unable to compete once the coronavirus forced them to close for 10 weeks.
“I’ve heard there are 50 storefronts on Duval Street with paper covering the windows,” said Scott Atwell, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce and a Key West native. “It’s starting to look as it did when the Navy pulled out in 1972.”
Business owner Ed Swift made the same comparison to the Navy’s large-scale departure from Key West in the 1970s.
“It took this town a good 15 or so years to build its tourism economy after the Navy left,” Swift said. “I watched Duval Street get boarded up, and that’s what we’re seeing again. The tax base plummeted as buildings changed hands at lower prices, and we’re likely to see that again.”
The Weekly has received multiple reports of local businesses closing for good, and Will Langley, principal real estate broker for Berkshire Hathaway in Key West, has been meeting with landlords and tenants to figure out the best way to keep businesses afloat.
“This uncertainty has to lead to an open and honest dialogue between tenants and landlords,” Langley told the Weekly. “We’ve been reminding landlords that their best horse in this race is an existing, good tenant, even if they have to defer their rent payments for a few months.”
Langley also said it’s too soon to tell whether rents on Duval Street are likely to go down in the coming months given the number of empty storefronts.
“People have always paid a premium to be on Duval Street to be in front of the masses, but if those masses aren’t here, then those businesses won’t be able to make their rent,” he said.
Fresh Produce clothing store on Duval Street is gone, along with Coffee Plantation on Caroline Street.
Turtle Kraals will not reopen, but that building is slated to house the Commodore and Boat House once the City Commission approves the lease reassignment. The City of Key West owns the properties around the Historic Seaport.
“That’s a bit of a bright spot in all this,” Langley said. “Here you have a local, successful business that clearly believes in the bight neighborhood.”
Tom Wheaton announced with regret that he will not reopen Paradise Health and Fitness after more than 20 years in business. A recent online “Help Wanted” ad for sales associates at Sears states, “Store closing.”
The parent company of Sears and Kmart in recent years has closed hundreds of those stores nationwide, and the Key West Sears now looks to be joining them.
“For Lease” signs and brown paper fill the windows of dozens of Duval Street shops, where high rents challenge business owners in the best of times.
Any business that has survived will be “hanging by the thinnest of threads” when it reopens on June 1 or sometime after.
“Even owners who received federal PPP money burned through cash or lost employees,”Atwell said. “If you’re local, go out and support your favorite small business. Practice all the safety precautions because we can’t afford a relapse. When visitors are back, thank them — from a distance.”
Several restaurants and retail businesses aren’t planning to reopen immediately on June 1, but will take a wait-and-see approach to gauge visitors’ behavior and keep a watchful eye on the continuing public health threat of COVID-19.
A survey of travelers’ intentions in the coming year “bodes well for Key West,” Atwell said, adding that the county’s Tourist Development Council will focus its marketing efforts on the drive-down markets as far north as Tennessee, given people’s stated reluctance to fly in the coming months or year.
“I’m hopeful we can attract enough visitors to get us through the slow months, when international travelers have traditionally buoyed the economy,” he added. “In the short term, without bars open, we will have to lean on the cultural and ecological virtues of the island. We also have a lot of great dining venues that I hope will be able to survive. That’s the toughest business.”
Atwell added that the cruise ship business “looks desolate, based on the survey data.”
In the meantime, he said, “the Key West Chamber of Commerce will continue to communicate and advocate for the working people of Key West.”