KEY WEST, Fla. — The little boy, no older than 10, urgently tugs his father’s hand. He points at a T-shirt displayed above the entrance of the Jungle Paradise shirt shop on lower Duval Street, this iconic town’s iconic main street.
“That’s the one. That’s the one I want!”
The shirt displays the silhouette of a dachshund on its back, feet pointing skyward.
“My Weiner does tricks,” the shirt reads. His mother instantly swoops in, leading father, young son and his smirking teenage brother through the crowds of cruise-ship tourists that spill off the sidewalk and onto the street.
Cruise-ship tourists, the bawdy clothing stores and cheap curio shops that feed their impulse buying and the giant cruise ships that trail mile-long plumes of mud as they pass through a federally protected marine sanctuary are the focus of what may be one of the country’s strangest and most ferocious municipal elections.
It’s a campaign that is measuring the limits of tolerance in this city celebrated for its embrace of the eccentric, the off-kilter and the outré. It also may be the only small-town election this year where gays, transsexuals, bisexuals and drag queens constitute a major voting bloc; where the issues include the sex lives of tiny coral polyps and a giant prehistoric fish, or where one side is led by a local contractor and writer who has authored a play about a conflicted metrosexual zombie.
At issue in the vote Tuesday is a referendum backed by the local chamber of commerce. It directs the city commission to request the Army Corps of Engineers to study the feasibility of widening the main shipping channel from 300 to 450 feet to accommodate larger cruise ships.
The channel would be enlarged by dredging up a mile-long, 150-foot-wide swath of living corals, sponges, sand, mud and “live rock” — chunks of stone encrusted with marine life — from the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The resulting campaign has kept Key West’s 25,000 residents alternately entertained and appalled through the sweltering summer and into the fall.
Supporters of the dredging study are pilloried as a few greedy business owners with little regard for the environment or the equally fragile charms of their island city.
Opponents are ridiculed as “coral huggers” and elitists who would sacrifice local jobs to remake Key West into the Hamptons.
“This campaign is fierce!” said Sushi, the unofficial queen of the Key West drag queens and a local resident who is lowered in a giant ruby slipper outside a club on Duval each New Year’s Eve as CNN cameras roll.
To supporters of the dredging study, the wider channel is necessary to accommodate the latest generation of cruise ships that are replacing an aging stock of smaller vessels on the Caribbean circuit.
The new ships carry 4,300 passengers and crew, and measure 1,110 feet in length and 127 feet wide — too long and wide to safely enter the existing channel.
Without a wider front door, these floating cities will continue to bypass Key West and the city’s $87 million cruise ship industry will wither, said lawyer Jennifer Hulse, the head of the pro-study group. Cruise ship tourism has plunged 30 percent since 2003, in part because of the narrow channel. A projected 714,000 tourists — roughly a third of all city visitors — will arrive in Key West aboard cruise ships this season, down 16 percent from the previous year, she said.
Cruise ship taxes and fees amount to about 15 percent of the city’s tax revenue. With fewer cruise ship dollars, city commissioners will be forced to raise taxes or slash services, she predicted.
Besides, “it’s only a study,” Hulse said. “If you are an environmentalist, you should not oppose an environmental study.”
But opponents fear the study would lead to dredging in the protected sanctuary, an act they liken to dynamiting the Sistine Chapel.
“This is the shoe in the door, the camel’s nose under the tent,” said Jolly Benson, who directs the anti-study campaign, at a recent public debate at the Tennessee Williams Theatre in Key West.
The dredge site is home to at least two species of endangered corals. Dense clouds of silt kicked up by the larger ships would endanger nearby coral and the offshore reef, says Benson, a Key West lighting contractor and part-time playwright. Dredging also would threaten the annual spawning migration of tarpon, he said. Anglers prize this holdover fish from the Cretaceous era that grows to more than 200 pounds.
“The cruise ships that come in here will still be able to come,” he said. “We don’t need to rip out sensitive marine environment to make room for bigger cruise ships. We’re done selling ourselves out.”
On a recent Tuesday morning, the streets of lower Duval and Front overflow with more than 5,000 passengers and crew members on a five-hour layover from the Carnival Lines ships Imagination and Magic.
Barkers twirling hand-lettered cardboard signs (“Everything inside $5”) stand outside stores selling cheap clothing and trinkets. Another touts $2 beers and $4 margaritas. Rick’s, a complex of eight bars and a strip club owned by Mark Rossi, a city commissioner and cruise-industry champion, is doing a brisk morning business.
“We need a main street we can be proud of,” said John Martini, an internationally acclaimed sculptor and Key West resident since 1976. When he first arrived, Martini said the lower eight blocks of Duval was the heart of the town. Residents shopped at Fast Buck Freddie’s department store, now shuttered, ate and drank in downtown restaurants, bought and sold art in downtown galleries.
The cruise ships came in the mid-1980s. And with them, the crowds and “honky-tonk,” Martini said. “Now no resident goes downtown,” Martini said. “We want our main street back.”
Ed Swift, the 66-year-old co-owner of the town’s leading tour company, has lived in Key West since he was a teenager. He also remembers the town in the late-1970s and 1980s.
“It was a great place to live as long as you didn’t have to make a living,” he recalled.
The Navy, then the city’s largest employer, closed its base in the early 1970s and the local economy collapsed, Swift said. Then the first cruise ship, a converted troop carrier, arrived around 1982, opening the door to today’s $87 million dollar industry.
Swift said study opponents are “elitists” out to remake Key West into a sedate enclave for the wealthy.
“A lot of people here don’t need this economy for their well-being,” he said. “They can afford to retire and buy a home. The whole cruise ship thing is in their face.”
Swift allowed that lower Duval is “pretty raunchy.” He also objected to the soft-porn T-shirt stores and cheap souvenir shops. “But folks who buy stuff there also buy high-end stuff, too.”
Besides, Swift said, lower Duval has “always been a little honky- tonk.”
Areas of agreement between the two sides are as rare here as 60-degree days in August. But they agree on one thing: The vote will define Key West for decades to come.
“It’s going to decide whether we are willing to give up our downtown and our environment for a not-so-sure profit,” Martini said.
“Nobody wants to damage the environment,” Swift said. “But we need a wider channel to keep us viable as a port. There has to be a certain amount of tolerance on a two-by-four-mile island.”
Morin is a freelance writer.