Last Monday, Key West City staff set out to explain how decisions made by staff and that were vetted by both the Truman Waterfront Advisory Board and the Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Committee over two years ago resulted in reducing the amount of land that was intended to benefit Bahama Village by two-thirds, from 6.6 acres to 2.3 acres. A set of slides suggest an all-out effort to show that the take-away was the result of careful decision making by the two boards and the City’s Naval Properties Local Redevelopment Authority [LRA]. Former Senior Project Manager and current Director of Port Operations, Doug Bradshaw, gave the time line of a series of resolutions that show how both boards and the LRA took a series of formal actions that resulted in the loss of two thirds of the so-called 6.6 acres, land that everyone believed was dedicated to benefit Bahama Village residents.
Despite claims by staff and some members of the Waterfront Board that Bahama Village would still benefit from many elements of the waterfront development, the fact is that the 6.6 acres dedicated to Village residents has now been diminished to 2.3 acres. The former Navy Mess Hall, Building 1287, was to become a community center that would provide space for recreation, social services, jobs training and employment opportunities to local residents. It is now scheduled for demolition if the City has its way. These and other development opportunities were the subject of a referendum endorsed by Key West citizens on November 6, 2007. The referendum authorized the City to lease the entire 6.6 acres for development of affordable housing, commercial and community development offices, among other things.
The language of the referendum was specific:
“Shall the Naval Properties Local Redevelopment Authority of the City of Key West (“LRA”) be authorized to lease real property of approximately 6.6 acres at the Truman Waterfront to the Bahama Conch Community Land Trust for a period of 99 years at the rate of one dollar per year, the final terms of which must be approved by the LRA, for uses including approximately 60-70 affordable housing units, a cultural arts center, small business retail spaces, and a youth development and/or convention center?”
There was some strong opposition to the referendum, particularly from former Mayor Morgan McPherson, but the vote to approve was 73% in the Bahama Village District 6, and a majority in the rest of the voting districts.
The BCCLT [Bahama Conch Community Land Trust] went ahead with its planning. In 2008 and 2009 a proposed lease and a conceptual business plan were prepared by the organization with the help of consultants. It was to be brought before the Commission in mid-2009. Just prior to when the Commission vote on the lease was to be scheduled, City Attorney Shawn Smith notified Commissioners that he ‘discovered’ irregularities at the Land Trust and suggested that Commissioners demand an audit of the organization before allowing discussion of the lease.
That was the beginning of the end for the BCCLT. The Board of Directors found it necessary to lay off BCCLT founder and Executive Director Norma Jean Sawyer because it lacked funds to pay her salary. Later the Land Trust was dissolved and its properties turned over to the Key West Housing Authority. But that did not and should not have negated the referendum. At least two other non-profit organizations brought forth proposals similar to the one that died on the vine. Nothing else gained any traction. The City had now asserted its full control of the entire 33 acres.
For the next two years nothing was done to either develop or disturb the 6.6 acre parcel. In 2011, however, in an attempt to generate additional money for the Bahama Village Tax Increment Financing Fund (TIFF), District 6 Commissioner Clayton Lopez brought a proposal to the LRA to give over a piece of the 6.6 acres to a developer who was proposing to build an Assisted Care Living Facility on an adjacent parcel. It was an effort to place taxable property within the TIFF boundaries. However, negotiations for the ACLF came to an end when the developer and the city could not agree on terms.
Coming back to the present, following the staff presentations, several citizens protested the division of the property on the grounds that Bahama Village had been used to secure the conveyance from the Navy and is now being deprived of the benefits that were promised. Former City Commissioner Bill Verge reminded the combined boards of other such occasions, when promises were made to the people of Bahama Village and then were reneged on. He mentioned the acquisition of the Key West Bight properties on Caroline Street, and also of the Sunset Pier at the end of Duval Street. This writer has also heard tales of a Main Street USA grant during the 1990s which disappeared into City coffers under mysterious circumstances.
Perhaps most telling, but having little effect on the outcome, was a comment made by BVRAC chairman Aaron Castillo, who said, “We have a chance now to bring back something that’s been dormant. I don’t want to say it was taken away from us, but it was supposed to be given back to us and supposed to help us, not hurt us.”
The reports of the meeting in the Key West Citizen and in the Keynoter diverge widely. The daily paper’s headline reads, “Bahama Village Still Gets 6.6 Acres”; the semi-weekly Keynoter talks about the 6.6 acres “being absorbed back into the site”.
In one final revelation, City Planner Don Craig announced during the meeting that he would be taking over from Bradshaw as liaison to the TWAB. Anyone who has seen Craig operate at city meetings will recognize that he is a silver-tongued orator who can make things appear to be not what they really are. It will be interesting to see how he intends to slip a private restaurant into Building 103, and to put an amphitheater on the park grounds when no one ever put a high priority on having one.
At the end of the hour and a half joint meeting of the two boards, TWAB and BVRAC agreed with staff and took no further action.
Bob Kelly is a retired computer company executive who moved to Key West in 1999 with his wife Janet. They live aboard a houseboat at City Marina at Garrison Bight. He is an early graduate from the city Ambassador program. He was a member of the board of directors of the Bahama Conch Community Land Trust and also the Bahama Village Music Program. He also served briefly on the Truman Waterfront Advisory Board before being removed on a technicality.