Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Is the Mayor Listening?

Few stories have raised such suspicion and anger than Key West Mayor Morgan McPherson's surprise move to oust the head of the Tourist Development Council, Harold Wheeler.

Wheeler is nearly unanimously appreciated for the work he has done during his 12 years at the helm of the Florida Keys marketing arm. As a matter of fact, he recently received a glowing review and a pay raise in recognition of all the good he has done for the Florida Keys.

Every Chamber of Commerce and tourist organization in the Florida Keys has spoken out strongly in favor of Wheeler. At yesterday's meeting to decide the fate of Wheeler, over 120 community members and business leaders showed up and supported him. Fortunately, for now, Wheeler kept his job. But is in no ways safe. Mayor McPherson still seems intent on getting rid of the well-liked TDC head.

So why is the Mayor of Key West looking to fire him?

The answer is likely in the tug-of-war between real estate developers and speculators who want to "upscale" Key West and the tourism industry which is the main economic engine of the county.

McPherson has a background in real estate and seems to be firmly in the upscale developer camp. McPherson wants to spend less of the Tourist Development Council money on advertising and more on infrastructure. The mayor has been vague about what direction he would like to see the TDC head - and that is partly why the whole situation is so perplexing.

The developers have laid huge bets - building hundreds of million dollar condos , McMansions, condotels, and dockominiums that are having a difficult time selling since real estate values in the Keys are deteriorating. Developers have purchased many Key West hotels - converting them to either expensive condos or expensive hotel rooms. No doubt these developers are sweating.

In short, the real estate bubble nearly consumed much of the tourist industry in the Florida Keys. It has made housing unaffordable for workers necessary to the tourist industry, and diminished room supply resulting in greatly increased room rates - pricing out much of the Keys traditional visitor. If not for the bubble bursting, who knows how many more hotel rooms would be taken off the market (by the way, this year over 500 hotel rooms will go "off line" as the Spottswood developers plan to rebuild 5 hotels into an upscale condo/timeshare/hotel.)

This week's Sunday edition of the local paper had a front page story asking if the Keys will be "Key Fancy or Key Funky".

It looks like the mayor is aiming for one thing: Key Fancy. And now that he has been re-elected by a very slim majority, he is behaving as if public input doesn't much matter. Aside from his move to oust Wheeler, the Mayor also ignored public outcry to help save the funky Waterfront Market and was the sole "no vote" to extend the market's lease.

But a word of caution to the Mayor: Your bet on upscale development at the expense of tourism has a good chance of backfiring. The real estate bubble has burst, the economy is arguably in recession, and the State of Florida is in a fiscal crisis. Don't bet the farm on overpriced real estate while sacrificing the charm of Key West and the main economic engine: tourism. You may find that tourism is built for the long run while real estate bubbles only arrive once in a generation. And it is not just tourism that is at risk. The families of the island will find it more and more difficult to live here, raise families, and succeed if there is not industry for them.

The Florida Keys and Key West are not Nantucket - nor do most people want it to become Nantucket. If the Mayor would like to change the direction of the marketing plan for the Keys, then he should attend the meetings and work with the experts and public.

At the very least, the Mayor needs to listen to the people, respect and represent them.
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1 comment:

rhett said...

I have been a long time visitor to Key West (once or twice a year for18 years). I have seen the changes. When I was a student I would spend every penny of my tax refund on a weeks worth of experiences that changed me for ever. Now that I am older I have been fortunate enough to have a job in ultra hi-end retail. The one thing that I can say is that the uber rich are not affected by short term economic fluctuations. So the high end condo conversions and hotels almost make sense.
The down side to all that is that the key west charm that I fell in love with is slowly disappearing. And fortunately, I make more money now; the market prices for rooms in Key West are rising faster than my salary can keep up with. Every year I plan a trip to Key West but we have already planned to change the 09 trip to New Orleans anticipating the rising costs in Key West.