The state is offering $5 million for lost port revenues, revenues from cruise ships that Key West officials no longer want and are turning away.

The money is Key West’s share of $250 million that the state is distributing among Florida’s 14 ports, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced on Thursday, July 29. (See the various amounts granted to each port in the table below.)

“It will be interesting to see if they accept this money,” said Capt. Bob Maguire, president of the Key West Bar Pilots, which was a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to keep cruise ships in Key West.  “I don’t know how it was calculated, or who calculated the number, but if the city was down $5 million due to COVID losses from lack of cruise ships, that negates all the arguments that the cruise ships do not contribute to the city coffers. Also, with the local efforts to drastically reduce the port economy, it seems to conflict with the purpose of this grant.”

On the other side of the cruise ship debate, Keys Weekly asked Arlo Haskell, treasurer of the Key West Committee for Safer Cleaner Ships, which is leading the charge against most cruise ships, about the message and implications of accepting the state’s $5 million for lost port revenue.

Like everywhere in the Keys, business at the Port of Key West has been booming without cruise ships — fuel sales, dockage fees, and rental income are all higher than historic norms,” Haskell said. “Cruise ships were never more than a break-even operation for the City, and business at the port has thrived as we transition to a new business model that works better for the tourists who power our economy. If Tallahassee wants to send $5 million in federal stimulus money to Key West with no strings attached, that’s great, but it’s not going to pay for the votes they stole from our community. And it’s not going to change the fact that cruise ships were bad for business in the Keys and almost everyone is doing much better without them.”

When asked on Saturday whether Key West can accept funding for revenues it doesn’t want, city manager Patti McLauchlin told the Keys Weekly, “I am waiting for spending guidelines. I reached out to our lobbyist on Thursday afternoon. I’m not sure where we stand until I hear back.”

The governor’s announcement of the port recovery funds does not include details about how the money can be spent. The press release states, “This funding is specifically to support the financial recovery of Florida’s ports through the America Rescue Plan and the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund.”

The federal America Rescue Plan provides money to states, cities, tribes, counties and other governments through fiscal recovery funds that allow recipient states, counties and others  flexibility in how they spend the funds, including to bolster impacted industries — in this case, Florida’s ports and maritime industry.

When asked the same question about whether Key West can or should accept port funds that it’s now willing to refuse from cruise ships, city commissioners said they needed to know more about spending guidelines for that port money.

Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover added, “I’m not inclined to turn down money to support our infrastructure, but I need to know more about the money and how it can be used.”

Commissioner Jimmy Weekley agreed, and wondered whether the funds could be used for “land-side projects” as well, such as the city’s upcoming renovation of Mallory Square. “Or could we use it to build the bridge across Admiral’s Cut?” Weekley asked, referring to the cut of water that currently separates the city-owned Truman Waterfront from the privately owned Opal Key Resort & Marina and its promenade that eventually connects to Mallory Square. “The other question I have is can the Walshes use this money for their Pier B, or is it just for public facilities? I believe Pier B is one of the few, possibly the only, privately owned port facility in the state, but I’m not certain.”

A cruise ship, pre-COVID, docks at the privately owned Pier B in Key West. DAVID MARKS/Pixabay

Commissioner Clayton Lopez said, “I don’t yet know enough about its limitations or what we CAN do with it. Of course, my immediate answer would be, ‘Show me the money,’ especially if it saves us from having to raise taxes. But I think it’s more about what our legal team tells us than it is a policymaker’s question.”

Commissioner Sam Kaufman said his first question would be whether the money could be used to fund the needed seawall repair at City Marina.

Commissioner Greg Davila said on Monday morning that he was meeting with McLauchlin Monday afternoon and wanted to know more about the funding restrictions.

Haskell of Safer Cleaner Ships told the Keys Weekly, “The port includes Garrison Bight, Charter Boat Row, City Marina, the Historic Seaport, etc. The City gets rents based on revenues from its many tenants at the port (restaurants, bars, retail); it also sells fuel and rents boat slips, moorings, and dinghy docks.”

But Mayor Teri Johnston said she wasn’t sure whether facilities such City Marina, Charter Boat Row and Garrison Bight Marina are considered part of the Port of Key West, or if the port is only considered the deepwater portion around Mallory, Outer Mole and Pier B.

“I’ll have to find out the answer to that,” Johnston said.

The mayor also pointed out that despite Key West’s drastic reduction in cruise ship visits, “We still have three active port facilities. The referendums just moderate the type of vessels at those ports. But we’ve moving forward with the T-pier extension at Mallory, so we’re still improving our port facilities. We just really need to dig into the details first. We only got the headline about the $5 million, but no specifics.”

The governor’s announcement of the port recovery funding states:

“Today, Governor Ron DeSantis announced $250 million in funding for Florida’s ports to assist in recovery from decreased revenue in 2020, and to invest in infrastructure at Florida’s ports. Florida’s ports generate an economic impact of $117.6 billion and support 900,000 jobs.

“‘Not only are Florida ports a key economic driver for their surrounding communities, but also for our state as a whole,’ said Gov. Ron DeSantis. ‘From the cruise industry, to cargo, to supporting military operations, our ports provide nearly 1 million jobs for Floridians. This $250 million investment in our ports is a commitment to our future economic prosperity for generations to come.’

“‘The impact seaports have on every region in our state is enormous and, under the Governor’s leadership, the state continues to make key investments in our transportation network to keep our state moving forward and ensure that goods make it to consumers efficiently,’ said FDOT Secretary Kevin J. Thibault. ‘The funding announced today will have lasting positive impacts and significantly assist our seaport partners, as well as their surrounding communities.’

The table below outlines the recovery funds being distributed among Florida’s 14 ports.

The table above shows the distribution of $250 million in COVID recovery funds among Florida’s 14 ports.

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.