Boosting Key West

Florida Keys tourism officials and employers may have opened a pair of influential eyes and found a sympathetic ear in Tallahassee for the coming legislative session, which begins Tuesday.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Pinellas County who next week will chair the Florida Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development, was in Key West on Wednesday to host a roundtable discussion on tourism along with Florida Keys State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo.

“Any time you can get the ear of someone who controls the purse strings in Tallahassee, and get them down here to Key West, it’s a good thing,” Raschein told The Citizen after the two-hour discussion at the Marriott Beachside Hotel. “Otherwise, I’m just a party of one up there in Tallahassee.”

Latvala led the informal discussion with about 30 Keys elected officials, business owners, employers and Tourist Development Council (TDC) representatives. He first wanted to know whether the Keys tourism experts are satisfied with the work of Visit Florida, the statewide and state-funded tourism marketing engine.

And they are.

“The governor is asking for $80 million from this coming budget to fund Visit Florida,” Latvala told the crowd, adding that Gov. Rick Scott’s request represents a $5 million increase over last year’s Visit Florida allocation. “Before we start talking about that kind of money, I wanted to be sure people are happy with the way Visit Florida is spending that money.”

Hospitality leaders commended the marketing group for its efforts in opening up the Chinese tourism market for Florida destinations.

“We could never have afforded to do that ourselves,” said Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West. “Visit Florida enables funding to be leveraged to ensure a much larger return on an investment.”

Before tackling Keys-specific challenges, Latvala also discussed potential and proposed changes to the way county TDCs are funded. He referenced State Rep. Matt Gaetz in the Florida Panhandle, who last year wanted each county’s TDC to send 20 percent of its funding to Tallahassee as a dedicated funding source for Visit Florida. That idea went over like a lead balloon in Monroe County and never made it past committee discussions.

“I’d never take money from local communities and send it to Tallahassee,” Latvala said. “That’s moving money the wrong way in my opinion.”

But Gaetz now wants to expand the allowed uses of TDC money, Latvala said. Instead of using the bed tax money collected from hotel visitors on marketing, advertising and capital projects, the lawmaker also wants counties to be able to spend that money on law enforcement, “possibly lifeguards.”

“His sheriff is pushing him on this,” Latvala said, asking for a show of hands from those in support of sending TDC money to Tallahassee or allowing TDC funds to be spent on law enforcement.

No hands raised.

“We’re not South Beach. We don’t have high rises, and we can’t build anymore hotel rooms farther west or farther inland,” said Virginia Panico, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce. “We already have the maximum number of rooms available here, so if you take away 20 percent of our tourism funding, you’re hurting us. We can’t just build more hotel rooms to replace that money.”

The discussion then got specific in terms of the Keys’ struggle to find and keep a workforce due to the high cost of living, the impossibility of home ownership for most workers and the ever-dwindling supply of affordable rental apartments, due in part to transient vacation rentals.

“Do you have Air BnB down here?” Latvala asked, referring to the online private home rental website.

“We’re trying not to,” Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers told him, explaining the county’s efforts to find and prosecute illegal vacation rentals who rent their homes without a transient license — and without paying sales tax on the rental.

“Do you folks still bus people down here to work every day from Dade County?” Latvala asked, and heard an affirmative answer from employers in the Middle and Upper Keys.

The discussion included a host of challenges facing the Keys, including the limited number of building permits, and the issue of supply and demand when it comes to housing.

“If you leave it up to the market, affordable housing won’t happen,” Carruthers said. “We’re looking at deed restricting.”

Local restaurateur Bobby Mongelli reminded the room that much of the housing crisis started more than a decade ago when FEMA officials made homeowners remove all downstairs enclosures that were being used as ground-floor apartments underneath stilted homes.

“FEMA made us take out 2,000 to 4,000 affordable units that weren’t even insured anyway,” Mongelli said.

“Plus, people can rent their homes for a lot more to tourists for a week than to workers for a year,” said Islamorada Mayor Deb Gillis.

“So what do you need?” Latvala asked.

“We need permits and funding,” Weinhofer said, summing up the top priorities for workforce housing. “We have 11,000 undeveloped lots in the Keys, and can only get permits to build on 3,000 of them.”

The senator suggested that Monroe County send its housing coordinator and a lobbyist to Tallahassee next week.

“I think there’s ways I can help,” Latvala said to an encouraged audience, before bringing the discussion to a close, and suggesting, “Now, let’s go get a drink.”

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