Streets for People / Limiting Large Cruise Ships Gives Us an Opportunity to Make Duval Street & Historic Downtown More Local Focused, Again

By Chris Hamilton. This story was written for and published by KONK Life newspaper on July 9, 2021 and is reprinted here with permission.

On July 12 the City Commission will explore the best way to move forward in the aftermath of the Florida Legislature and Governor’s decision to nullify the citizens of Key West cruise ship referenda. Limiting the number of large cruise ships coming into town gives us an opportunity to turn Duval Street and the historic district back into a real downtown, where mom and pop shops thrive and serve the needs of locals, snowbirds, and long-stay visitors. It sets the stage for an upcoming Duval Street Revitalization Study process where the citizens and local business can set the course of downtown’s future instead of catering to the agenda of the corporate mass tourism industry. 

Our Island’s Health and Water is Better Without Big Cruise Ships

It didn’t take very long into last year’s shutdown for people that work the water to report seeing cleaner water and nature coming back with more fish and animals. As the good folks at Safer, Cleaner, Ships put it, “Big Ships, Big Problems.” The large cruise ships are a public health hazard. All around the world cruise ships fostered Covid outbreaks. They foul our environment and kill marine life. Large cruise ships in Key West’s shallow channel stir up silt plumes that drift onto coral and seagrass beds. Excessive silt kills juvenile conch, lobster, stone crab, fish, and coral. They routinely dump pollutants into the ocean, including bilge water containing oil and grease, raw sewage, food waste, and household garbage. Public health is essential to our economy. Our economy, especially our fishing and maritime sports, relies on a healthy marine ecosystem. Limiting large cruise ship will mean our waters, land and air will all be the better for it.

Our Overall Economy Will Be Better Off Too

With 50 percent of our visitors coming from cruise ships, our downtown economy catered to this group, often led by large corporate interests. Higher rents near the port leading to either chains or trinket shops, with inexpensive items made elsewhere, crowded out opportunities for venues that cater to locals and long-stay visitors. Cruise ship kick-back schemes drive profits down for local business owners. When cruise ship visitors spend an average of $32 per person and other travelers spend an average of $550, having the day trippers crowd out overnight stays and locals doesn’t make good economic sense. 

The economy goes back to the environment though. People come here for the crystal-clear waters, good fishing, and clean air. If we allow that to be ruined, no one is coming here period. 

“For many travelers, the current lack of cruise ships already makes the idyllic southernmost point of the United States all the more worth visiting.

Gilbert Ott; Key West Shuns Cruise Ships in Bold New Tourism Move

Duval Street & Historic Downtown Suffered from Mass Tourism

Travel research around the globe points to mass tourism or day travelers scaring away higher value overnight tourists and locals too. The old Yogi Berra truism of “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” is apt here. Anecdotally we’ve all heard locals and snowbirds say they avoid Duval Street and parts of downtown because of the crowds. People in lodging have heard the same from their guests. So, the T-shirt, trinket and quick alcoholic places have crowded out other businesses and exacerbated the cycle because then the local people say there’s no place worth going to on main street. It’s a viscous downward cycle catering to the bottom. 

“The home-grown economy & culture are why we moved to Key West from the mainland. The stronger they are, the more appealing Key West itself is—and the more interesting it is to the world. Mass tourism only drags us down in the eyes of the very visitors we want to attract.” 

Local Business Owner Louis Raymond
This quick story says that Mass Tourism causes overcrowding, pollution, ricing prices and bad behavior.

People Fondly Recall an Earlier, Simpler More Resident Centered Time on Duval Street

As the pandemic unfolded last year and the wonderfully thoughtful Reimagining Key West Facebook group sprang to life, helping to cheer on Safer, Cleaner Ships, we heard countless stories about a bygone Key West that was simpler, less crowded and more about our residents. And how that attracted amazing long-term visitors who appreciated being among the locals. Here’s how longtime local artist John Martini describes a time many recall fondly:

Towards the middle and later part of the 70’s local entrepreneurs started to open small boutiques, bookstores, theaters, guest houses, galleries, restaurants, café, and bars. There was a wide selection of stores, many offering a personal and unique approach to marketing. Alongside the already existing business’s things began to brighten for Duval Street.

We moved Lucky Street Gallery from Margaret St. to the 900 block of Duval around 1983. On one side of the gallery there was a swimming suit designer/retailer and on the other a fine Italian restaurant. Next to that was Savannah, an iconic Key West restaurant. Down the block one way was Fast Buck Freddie’s and Environmental Circus and up the street Lawrence Formica’s La te da and lots in between. The visitors, often long stay, were generally engaged and taken with the bohemian atmosphere, the clear air and ocean, the ability to access a wide variety of outdoor activities and often ended the day in one of the many restaurants, bars or clubs. Locals and visitors were comfortable roaming Duval Street during the day and evening. Local merchants profited and the changes extended further up Duval. 

In the late 80’s things began to change. The powers to be decided that mass tourism, with numerous short time tourists over the long stay tourism that existed at the time, would suit their business interests better than the laissez fare nature of what was then a lively Duval Street. Along come the cruise ships around the same period. My Lucky Street Gallery was forced off Duval around 1993 and the street went through a radical change as mass tourism and cruise ship aligned stores and chains replaced the established local merchants. It did not have to be that way.” 

Longtime Local Artist John Martini
Biking in Key West in the 1970’s. https://youtu.be/pDBUjo4n2t0?t=1866

I tried to sum up the thread of what we were hearing at the time with this post: Reimagining Key West – 10 Things We Should Strive For and 10 Ways To Get There, April 22, 2020. The crux of the story was: a simpler, less crowded, locals-centric Key West, a place where Mom n Pop shops rule; a community that respects, protects and celebrates our natural environment; a culture where creativity and the arts flourish; a veneration for our historic district; stewardship of our history, storied characters and One Human Family spirit; a Main Street that brings back locals; an island that is easy to get around by biking and a downtown less congested with cars. We went on to importantly add: 

“We DO want to share all this with visitors. But we want visitors that can appreciate what our island has to offer on its own terms and merits without the expectation of mass culture or consumption that degrades all we’re trying to preserve, protect and enhance. If visitors can’t respect these terms, we should ask them to go elsewhere.”

An Authentic, Real and Local Focused Downtown

Most visitors, to any destination, not just Key West, crave an authentic, real place that the locals love. So, by catering to those of us who live and work here, and that includes people who live here part-time, you get that real, authentic experience that visitors appreciate. They don’t want chains and stuff they can get at home, and they really don’t want tourist trap places either. Visitors don’t want to be treated as tourists, they want to blend and be part of the scene. So, we need to help local, authentic places that cater to residents thrive. 

That means art spaces, galleries, live theaters and movie theaters, whimsical shops, bars, restaurants, dance halls, cabarets, food trucks, clothing, shoes, furniture, housewares, hardware, bakeries, butchers, grocery stores, little bodegas, and everything anyone can imagine. 

On the God Save the Points Travel Blog they wrote of Key West passing the referenda: 

“Sustainable tourism is a key new focus in the modern world, but so is the “quality” of the tourism. How much better would a destination be if it could reduce overcrowding by losing 50% of the visitors, while finding another way to bring back 8% of lost money with a fraction of the people? Much travel research done in Santorini, Venice and other popular cruise ports, all signs point to a new era of sustainable travel, with more focus on creating the best travel experience for the guests which make the most positive impact on local communities.”

Says another travel blog, Tourism Tiger: 

“The local experience trend means many tourists now want to travel like locals, and to immerse themselves in the culture, traditions, and language of a place. As more and more people grow tired of resorts and standard vacations, there has been a shift towards wanting to see the “real” side of the destinations they visit. And this is a trend that is only going to continue growing.”

Local color.

Local Focused = More People Living Downtown

Local focused should also mean bringing more people to downtown to live because more people downtown let our local businesses thrive even more. Perhaps with less day visitors some downtown buildings and parking lots can be repurposed for living and affordable housing. A good example is that awful parking lot on Duval at United.

And more people living downtown creates the ability to get around by bike, walk and transit. So local focused means ‘streets for people’ focused, which makes for a more interesting place, because nobody thinks car-parking is interesting.

July 12 City Commission Meeting and Duval Revitalization Study Offer Opportunity to Reimagine Our Downtown as Locals Focused

While we can’t go back to the 1970’s and 80’s, we can plan for a better future. It just so happens that we have two upcoming opportunities to do just that.

The first opportunity begins July 12 when the City Commission holds a Special Meeting on what to do in the wake of the State Legislature and Governor rescinding the Key West Cruise Ship Referenda. Without City Commission action limiting large cruise ships the second point is moot. If the Commission heeds the will of the people and figures this out, then the Duval Street Revitalization Study is the second opportunity.

Mayor Johnston has touted the need for Duval Street revitalization since she first ran for Mayor. She generated the Mall on Duval pilot which begat the study. We understand an RFP to hire a study consultant is forthcoming. The Commission needs to redouble their efforts on this important project as it is woefully behind schedule. It offers a chance for residents and businesses to rechart Duval Street’s future as more of a traditional Main Street catering to locals, snowbirds and longer-stay visitors instead of needing to accommodate the crush of cruise ship visitors. Let’s support Mayor Johnston’s efforts.

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You can find all the KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and recent stories below:

Chris Hamilton
Chris Hamilton

A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led the nationally renown Commuter Services unit for Arlington County, VA’s DOT, Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits.

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