Whoa, wait a second. What just happened? 

Did a whole bunch of Key Westers just manage to agree on something? 

Did city government employees, politicians and business owners just sit down, on the same level, without tirades or time limits, and realize they all want the same thing — a classy and attractive outdoor dining scene?

It happened Tuesday at City Hall, where 30 or so people met to discuss the city’s popular Sidewalk Cafe program that, since COVID, has allowed restaurants to place tables on city sidewalks at no cost to the restaurants.

The city now plans to start enforcing the program’s regulations — and charging restaurants to participate — come Oct. 1. 

Many restaurant owners said they are willing to pay for the right to use the city sidewalks, but the fees the city initially proposed — $500 per seat per year, plus a one-time impact fee of $592 per seat spread out over five years — were impossibly high for all but two upscale restaurants that signed on. 

A dozen or so restaurant owners respectfully made their case Tuesday when meeting with

City Manager Patti McLauchlin and Assistant City Manager Todd Stoughton, as well as Commissioners Greg Davila, Jimmy Weekley, Clayton Lopez and Mayor Teri Johnston.

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The owners reminded officials they can’t use outdoor seats all the time due to rain and heat. They also pointed out that they don’t make any additional money on outdoor seats unless the indoor tables are completely full. Otherwise, they’ve just relocated, rather than added seating.

Johnston understood the distinction and said, “If the restaurants aren’t adding any seats, but just relocating them outside, then does there even need to be an impact fee?” she asked attorney Ron Ramsingh. “Because they’ve already paid an impact fee for each existing seat.”

Ramsingh is now in the process of researching what impact fees the city can legally waive or reduce. There is greater flexibility in the annual licensing fee that will likely be reduced from the $500 per seat per year.

“The purpose of this meeting is to make this program better for you,” Stoughton told the business owners. “We didn’t have this much input from the business community when we were coming up with this program before, so we’re glad to have it now. Give us your input and we’ll take it back to make this better for residents, guests, businesses, everyone.”

Stoughton and McLauchlin emphasized, “The city is not looking at this as a revenue generator.”

“We’re going to make sure we’ve captured your concerns,” McLauchlin said.

The mayor also asked a small group of owners to meet with the city to help determine reasonable fees and bring them into line with other Florida cities that charge from nothing to $200 per seat per year, compared to Key West’s $500 fee.

“I think the business community and our local government have a little bit of a fractured relationship, and I think this is a very good way to heal that fracture,” said Bill Lay, owner of La Trattoria restaurant on Duval Street.

Tuesday’s hour-long meeting was a civil and respectful exchange of ideas among reasonable, rational adults — and they did it without a single frenzied Facebook group. Imagine.

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