Key West Rejects Cruise Industry Push for Deeper Port and Bigger Ships

On one side, there's the billion-dollar cruise industry and Key West's powerful chamber of commerce sinking thousands of dollars into a campaign to convince islanders to dredge 17 acres of sea floor to allow larger ships and thousands more tourists to visit. On the other, environmentalists, preservationists, and their leader -- a playwright named "Jolly."

Only in Key West would the playwright win that fight. Yet that's exactly what happened this week.

See also: Port of Miami Deep Dredge Clears Final Hurdle As Environmentalists Drop Lawsuit

Tuesday night, Key West voters cast ballots on whether to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a $3 million study on dredging their harbor channel. The results were unambiguous: 4,531 against the plan and just 1,630 for it.

That's despite a hard push from Key West's Chamber of Commerce. "It's a little disappointing," Jennifer Hulse, the chamber's spokeswoman, said of the results. "I certainly expected a lot closer vote."

Credit opponents led by Jolly Benson, a playwright who heads the Key West Committee for Responsible Tourism.

Though the island is heavily dependent on tourism, Benson and his group helped highlight the downsides of the plan to deepen the channel by 20 feet. The plan would require destroying some endangered corals protected by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

"People say to me on the street that they are glad we are standing up to certain businesses that think they can do whatever they want," Benson told the Miami Herald last weekend. "There have been big boys in this town for a long, long time. The people who I am talking to have had enough and are not willing to risk the future of the island."

The chamber will surely continue its push, though. With the industry moving toward larger ships, Key West stands to lose thousands of visitors if it doesn't have a channel wide enough to admit the boats.

Follow Miami New Times on Facebook and Twitter @MiamiNewTimes.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink