ROOSEVELT BLVD WATCH: Things Are Not All That Swell On The Boulevard

issue 7 for web final

by Naja and Arnaud Girard…….

The infamous green fence that hid the Boulevard worksite blew away last week in an unexpected gust of wind.  It revealed the same moonlike landscape, unmanned machinery, and lack of progress and has renewed the perplexity of passersby jammed in traffic.

According to local mainstream press, some Key West politicians, and FDOT everything is swell on the Boulevard.  One might think business was thriving.   The Key West Citizen even reported last week that new businesses are opening up and Commissioner Billy Wardlow, in whose district the project lies, declared himself proud of the achievement.  It really looked as though no one had bothered asking those business people on the Boulevard about their side of the story.

So here it comes. It may be unpleasant work but someone’s got to do it:

We took to the Boulevard beginning at the west end and stopped to ask a few questions at about 20 different businesses – quite a trip.  Some shop owners fought back tears while trying to explain the demise of their business.  Some got so upset they quickly ended up unable to speak at all.

We learned that the food industry has no afternoons and mechanics have no mornings.  People buy food on their way back home (which is now through Flagler Avenue) and dropping an auto off for repairs just doesn’t happen much anymore during heavy morning inbound traffic hours.   The Mom and Pop businesses are literally dying.  For various reasons, one-way traffic seems to have translated into half-day business.

“It’s killing us,” says John Wagner, the owner of Chill Factor Auto behind McDonalds, “I have not paid myself in six months; any clerk at McDonalds is taking home more money than me.  I have thought of throwing in the towel twice this year.”

His friend and neighbor, Captain Jim of Jim & Joan Alexander’s Citgo had to close after 12 years.  Dions, which owns the building, took over but the clerk says the place has lost about 60% of its customers.  She feels people have simply forgotten the foodmart even exists.

The big franchise managers like John Drescheer at GFS and Mirta Torres at Beall’s Outlet don’t think those businesses will close, but the employees are feeling the pain:  the number of employees has been reduced and employees are complaining that their hours have been cut.

Contrary to the image the mainstream press is trying to project, there is no great revival on the Boulevard.  It’s true that some businesses have moved in.  But the Five Guys Ice Cream Parlor was a deal in the making way before the construction began.  The mattress store, they say,  is a big franchise simply filling a gap in distribution.  The motorcycle shop was already on the Boulevard and just took over the building that used to house the liquor store, which had gone under after 25 years (because of the construction).  The Real Deal Pawn Shop’s owner, Sean Candela, decided to relocate to 3229 Flagler Avenue.

No one we talked to was optimistic or proud of the grand achievement in the making.  Actually, everyone agreed about two things:

First, everyone continues to question why there are so few workers.  “I used to work for a big underground utility company in New Orleans,” says Mike Tolbert of Daddy Bones BBQ, “We would work 24/7.  This job should make the list of Who’s Who in the World of Worst Contractors.”

The second thing everyone seems to agree on is:  Why in the world do we have to close three miles of highway if we only have enough manpower and equipment to work on a half mile.   And if you were sitting there watching your business sink slowly on the side of a wasteland, knowing the only active work being done was a few miles away, chances are you’d feel the same way.

The interesting thing, however, is that when we asked whether they had called their Commissioner they all said, “No.”

Well here we are:  With all due respect, Commissioner Wardlow, if you want to know the truth, perhaps it’s time you went for a bike ride and spent a few hours stopping in at every business on the Boulevard.

FDOT has been readjusting their schedules, which of course is one way of being “on schedule”.  But no matter what, the fact remains that according to their official “Fact Sheet”/Schedule, Phase 1A (from Eisenhower to Palm Avenue) was to be completed at the end of February, Phase 2A  (from Palm Avenue to Kennedy) at the end of March and Phase 3A (Kennedy to US 1) at the end of April.Roosevelt Boulevard Schedule by Dean Walters

Roosevelt Boulevard Schedule by Dean Walters

Yet FDOT claims that the work is only 44 days late.   FDOT has allowed 33 additional contract days because of rain since this project began; however a quick sampling and cross reference shows that on many of those “rainy days” (for example June 22, 2012, September 24, 2012, October 17,  2012, and March 19, 2013) NOAA’s weather data shows only trace amounts of precipitation.

Delays have also been blamed on “unknown obstacles” found when installing the sheet piles for the new seawall; however, according to Tom Hambright, the Monroe County historian, when the Boulevard engineers showed up at the public library, Hambright was able to show them photographs of the original seawall under construction.  “Everything was right there on the photographs,” says Hambright, “no excuses.”

Finally, we’ve got one more thing to report in this Boulevard Watch:  Key West The Newspaper received some interesting information from FDOT this week.   The reader may remember that FDOT had gone out of their way to deny that a highly controversial John Chaney had anything whatsoever to do with the Boulevard Construction.

The denial, made public by Dean Walters, official FDOT spokesperson for the project, was apparently an attempt to cover up the uncomfortable fact that Chaney and his wife Lisa had been at the center of a bribery scandal involving a sewer inspector in Miami-Dade costing that County $3.5 Million to reconstruct substandard work and the fact that Chaney had just (last November) allegedly tried to bribe his way out of a DUI prosecution after a high speed chase across the Seven Mile Bridge.

As we reported previously, FDOT was lying and Chaney is in fact involved in the Boulevard Construction.  We learned this week that not only is Chaney involved in the Boulevard Construction, but he and his wife Lisa Chaney appear to control all three companies that have  participated in the installation of the City’s sewer force main on the Boulevard.

What’s certain is that the most critical issue that everyone is concerned with is scheduling.  If the project is actually completed in the next sixteen months as FDOT recently promised, most Boulevard businesses seem to be determined to tough it up and make it through.

However, if the calendar spills over any more than it already has, the borrowed time, borrowed money, hope and patience of the Boulevard business owners who have not already fallen will most likely run out.

The project could be prolonged for several reasons:  due to shoddy work, as in the case of the Chaneys’ work in Miami/Dade where sewer lines had to be dug back up to fix leaky joints, or another common occurance – the contractor could be given too much slack allowing it to overextend itself by taking on other projects (like building an overpass in Miami) shrinking the number of crew available to work in Key West.

The message from the Boulevard businesses owners to our public officials is clear:  Exert every ounce of pressure you can possibly assemble to make sure this project is completed by the current deadline.

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