Pigeon Key’s Kelly McKinnon love for the tiny island is evidenced by the foundation’s rapid growth. A historic spot popular with visitors, the 5 acre island is a world renowned education center and research facility.
“I was totally thrown,” said Kelly McKinnon of being asked to speak at the upcoming Florida Keys Community College graduation ceremony. McKinnon, the executive director of the Pigeon Key Foundation, is a former student and will be honored as the college’s “Distinguished Alumnus.”
“There are so many former students that feel like I do. We want to give back not only to the school, but the community that it’s in,” McKinnon said. “I’m honored.”
McKinnon praised FKCC President Dr. Jonathan Gueverra.
“It’s because of him that I feel like I’m back in the FKCC family,” he added.
It’s been a long journey from the years McKinnon spent at the college during the ‘90s studying marine science. Back then, there was no college housing. McKinnon laughs when he remembers his “home” — a houseboat docked on Shrimp Road in Stock Island, a much rougher version of its current self. Those experiences notwithstanding, he says he received a very thorough education in the Keys.
“And it gave me a lot of confidence. I could walk into any situation and people were so excited to ask me about learning marine science in such a unique environment. People were just enthralled by it,” he admitted.
After a few years in the Keys, which he discovered on fishing trips with his dad as a teenager, McKinnon returned to his home state and Wayne State University in Michigan. He received a bachelors degree in education, which segued neatly into a position as education director at Pigeon Key Foundation. Eight years later he is still amazed to live on an island so rich in history. Since the turn of the century Pigeon Key has been a railroad camp, a maintenance facility for the highway, the headquarters for the state’s toll authority and much more.
McKinnon isn’t content to let it be just that. As its executive director, he’s constantly working to not only keep the 100 year old buildings together, but to bring the facility’s infrastructure into the 21st century without compromising the historic integrity of the island. And the number of school-age students who visit the island every year has quadrupled with tours up 40 percent in the last few years. The island has also become a hotbed of scientific research for Valdosta University and Nova Southeastern.
“They study sea squirt enzymes and sea cucumbers for use in cancer prevention, Plus there’s fish counts, sea water chemistry analysis, and experiments that have to do with artificial substraits to help coral growth,” he said.
The biggest focus right now, however, is the restoration of the eight of 11 buildings on the island that are on the historic register.
“I’m a scientist and educator, but now that the funding has been secured to restore a portion of the Old 7 Mile Bridge, we can turn our focus to restoring the buildings to historic accuracy. Since 1993, we’ve only been performing standard maintenance,” McKinnon said.
“The island’s success is directly attributable to the resolve and dedication of Kelly and his staff,” praised Foundation President Don Hiller. “He has been invaluable to keep the island open and available for all the world to enjoy.”
The FKCC graduation ceremony is on Friday, May 8 at 6:30 p.m. in the Tennessee Williams Theatre on the Key West campus. In addition to McKinnon, the graduation class will also hear addresses from student Melissa Rivero and U.S. Coast Guard Commander Captain Aylwyn Young.