I am writing as I have a unique perspective on the Simonton Street trailer park. I have a masters degree and spent a 30 year career working with the homeless and the mentally ill for the state of South Carolina. I also lived at the trailer park for three 6 month periods with my wife, a retired registered nurse. For half of that time, to fill my days and earn extra cash, I was employed as the park’s handyman. As such I saw the inside of every trailer.
The trailers are, and have been, in deplorable condition. This was due to the absolute neglect by the previous owner, the Archdiocese of Miami (henceforth the Church) and its local representative, St. Marys Star of the Sea. What Joe Cleghorn purchased was beyond renovation. From the first day I rented I knew the park would eventually be developed. Joe Cleghorn is a developer- that is what he does, it should not be a surprise. I personally do not like the modus operandi of developers- destroy the old, create the new, make the money, and get out. But no one should be shocked when a developer develops a property.
The primary villains in this saga (and there are many) are the Church and the City of Key West. The Church received a charitable donation of the park and left it to deteriorate, caring absolutely nothing for the poor residents. Then they “sold” it to Joe Cleghorn and Kimberly Parker for approximately half a million dollars down and 4 years worth of monthly interest only payments. According to last week’s Blue Paper there is no record the nearly $2,000,000 balloon payment to the Church has ever been made by Mr. Cleghorn. The Church seems unconcerned about receiving this payment. I wish I could have purchased my house for only a down payment and 4 years’ interest.
As for the City of Key West, several involved departments haved failed in their duty. The Tree Commission is a farce and should be abolished. A commission member in the past has boasted that they approve 98-99% of requests for tree trimmings and wholesale removal. True to their reputation, they agreed to the removal of 37 of 45 standing trees in the park and the trimming of others. With their kind of record, why does the Commission even exist?
The Planning Department is headed by a developer, Donald Craig. He has been heard stating the trailer park is a blight and has made certain the path has been smoothed for development. Of course there is supposed to be 30% of new units to be affordable in any new development. But that could create a profit problem for fellow developer Joe Cleghorn. Therefore Mr. Craig’s Planning Department simply decided this is a Redevelopment and thus not subject to the 30% affordable housing rule. This, despite the fact every water, sewer, and electrical line is to be removed. Every trailer and permanent structure is to be demolished. More than 82% of the trees are to be removed and others trimmed. Half of Virginia Street bordering the park is to be torn up and reconfigured. The entire park’s land mass is to be bulldozed and leveled. All residents are to be evicted, never to return. Yet, according to Mr. Craig, this does not constitute new development. Well, we certainly can trust the assessment of a man who allows himself to become impaired, throws stones at a marked police cruiser and gets a two week suspension from his current job.
However the City Commission, excluding Tony Yaniz, Teri Johnson and perhaps Mark Rossi, bears the greatest blame for not standing up for the park’s residents, or even the trees, or for the charm of rapidly disappearing old Key West. They rubberstamped the develoment request and then mourn about the lack of affordable housing. Clayton Lopez, in particular, (who represents the district encompassing the park) states he is concerned about the lack of workforce housing, yet votes to turn the trailer park into upscale townhouses. Actions, not words, are what matters and it is clear where Mr. Lopez as well as Mr. Cates, Mr. Wardlaw, and Mr. Weekley truly stand on the issue of affordable housing. They are for it as long as the developers are in no way hurt or held accountable.
There are other options. The current trailers are decrepit and need to go. But they could be replaced with 44 nearly new FEMA trailers that are stored by the thousands around the country and can be had for nearly nothing. Or the city could insist that 30% of the units actually be affordable. Or one of the many other options, with or without the involvement of Mr. Cleghorn.
Finally, does the city really knows who owns the trailer park and thus has the right to evict residents? Joe Cleghorn? The Church? Who is truly developing it? Joe Cleghorn? Chief Property Ventures of San Diego? At this point the entire development appears to be a shell game. According to the Blue Paper Mr. Cleghorn never made his balloon payment to the Church. If true, this would lead one to believe that if he does not have the money to buy it, than he does not have the money to develop it. Indeed it now appears Chief Property Ventures of San Diego is now in charge of development (according to their own boastful web site), but also do not have the financial resources necessary and thus are actively soliciting potential investors.
It is looking more and more as though the City Commission has given approval to develop (or REdevelop) property that was possibly not completely paid for by the purported owner and is to be developed by entities who do not have the ready cash to go forward. Yet dozens of people are losing their homes, the city is losing its most densely forested area in Old Town, quite possibly for 21 second homes or vacation rentals- or perhaps for nothing if Chief Property Ventures cannot find investors.