The Monroe County School Board met on July 23 to discuss a proposed bus facility on 5th Street and 3rd Ave on Stock Island. The project is estimated by Ajax Construction Company to cost $13.9 million.

The board also received a report on learning gains across the county and approved advertisement of the proposed budget.

The school district bought the land on Stock Island in 2017, with the intention of it being a relocation site for part of its headquarters, now located on Trumbo Road. The Lower Keys Chamber of Commerce registered public dissent regarding the location of the proposed bus facility. On July 8, Chamber Executive Vice President Virginia Panico penned a letter to the school board, reasoning that the Stock Island location would be better used for workforce housing.

“As I know you are aware, the issue of workforce housing is dire and losing what could be a great residential area to a solely commercial/industrial endeavor seems shortsighted at best,” the letter stated. The chamber proposed an alternate location on Rockland Key as more suitable for rotating buses.

The chamber showed up at the meeting as well: representatives Michael Morawski, president of the Hemingway House, senior district manager of Waste Management Greg Sullivan and Panico all spoke on the issue.

“We’ve been discussing workforce housing since I’ve been here for 29 years,” said Panico. “The lower-income folks seem to manage it, but who is hurting is the teachers, police and fireman. This would be a perfect place for workforce housing … there are places to park elsewhere.” The representatives from the chamber also argued that the Rockland Key location—which had previously been scouted for a Wal-mart—would offer better space, less expensively.

“This is a very important community issue, and we want to get the facts out and have a good solid rationale,” said school board Chairman Bobby Highsmith.

Superintendent Mark Porter supported the transportation proposal in his report: “With regard to workforce housing, I think the school board has indeed stepped up,” he said. “I think it’s important to look at how we invest existing assets into workforce housing.” He cited the district’s Sugarloaf property and its Trumbo Road property as sites for housing. He said that if the district does not decide to develop Stock Island as a transportation depot, the board should instead sell it to a developer who can build workforce housing. Porter also said that using the Stock Island location for a warehouse facility would vacate a portion of the Trumbo land.

Board member Mindy Conn said there were valid reasons that the Rockland Key property wouldn’t work because it is not located close enough to employees. She also stated that she didn’t feel the district should be building on land it doesn’t already own, and rather, use the Trumbo Road property, which “would be ideal for workforce housing.”

Board members Sue Woltanski and Andy Griffiths brought up the proposed warehouse space on the Stock Island property as an issue, since files can now be digitized.

“I don’t understand why we need a space three times the size of my house to store paper,” said Griffiths. Board member John Dick brought up some issues with the proposed construction plan but ultimately said that it was a disservice to staff and the district to abandon the project.

“We are way too far in the process to begin second-guessing,” said Highsmith, and commented that if the district sells the property to a developer, “that would set Trumbo back significantly.” Highsmith acknowledged the problem of the affordable housing shortage in the Keys and said that if it’s not addressed then the community will be come transient. “I don’t want to wait, and I don’t want to postpone with Trumbo.”

The board agreed that Ajax Construction is a fair company that — while the cost is high — has offered a reasonable estimate.

The board voted 3-2 to approve, with Conn and Griffiths dissenting.

Highsmith also pointed out that the county actually received money back on the Gerald Adams construction project. Bill Byrne of Ajax Construction reported to the board that he was pleased with the construction, and $575,000 would be returned to the county.

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