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Still many hurdles for a Keys ferry to Cuba

Despite lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., and "verbal interest" from companies footing the bill to build a ferry terminal from the Southernmost City to Cuba, several hurdles still remain.

David Whitestone of Tampa-based Holland & Knight LLP has lobbied on the issue on behalf of the city of Key West the past several months. He said there are a handful of things at play, such as training customs workers.

Ferry travel to Cuba closed in the late 1950s following a government takeover by the Castro regime. This past December, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced the normalization of relations, which has since eased travel to the communist country.

Last month, the federal Office of Foreign Asset Control gave at least five companies permission to launch ferries to Cuba. However, the Cuban government needs to approve the ferries for dock access.

Whitestone has worked on understanding the permitting process for maritime traffic to Cuba. For example, he said last month's Havana Challenge, a first-of-its kind sailing event from Key West to Havana, involved multiple government agencies including the Department of Commerce and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Despite the ferry companies that already have permission from the federal government, Key West lacks a ferry terminal where U.S. Customs and Border Protection can clear international ferry travelers.

"Without a doubt, that's going to be the next step. We'll talk to U.S. Customs and Border Protection about the resources that are available," Whitestone said.

Mayor Craig Cates said Thursday that there is "verbal interest" in companies paying to build a ferry terminal (the city already has one at 100 Grinnell St. but it basically just serves a Key West-to-Fort Myers and Marco Island route and the Dry Tortugas National Park ferry).

Cates was mum on names who would build a second terminal, noting it's a "long way from putting it on paper."

Cates said a ferry terminal would cost between $1.5 million and $2 million and a company that wants to foot the bill would lease it from the city. A potential location would be at the Grinnell Street terminal.

Whether the city would create a new port or update an existing one such as the Grinnell Street location to clear international ferry travel remains to be seen.

"It's very complicated," Cates said. "It's a process."

City Commissioner Tony Yaniz said Thursday he plans to visit Cuba on city business by mid-July. On May 19, City Manager Jim Scholl approved a $2,003, weeklong travel request to Cuba for Yaniz According to the travel authorization request form, Yaniz plans to meet with several Cuban officials, including Havana's port director.

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