Less than two months ago, state highway officials allowed Monroe County to place a sign on U.S. 1 in front of the Florida Keys Visitor Center in Key Largo to help the business, which was suffering from lower walk-in traffic due to a major construction staging area right next to the property.
That sign is now gone, and Cheryl Holt, owner of the private, for-profit Florida Keys Visitor Center, wants to know why.
"I was under the impression it was going to stay until the construction project was over," Holt said this week.
Construction crews, trucks and equipment for the county's Lake Surprise drainage and road repair project are set up in a staging lot directly north of Holt's mile marker 106.2 business. That makes it difficult for drivers to see the Visitor Center before passing it. The business makes money by booking motel and hotel stays, dive and snorkel trips and other tourist-related activities.
"We use all local companies," Holt said. "Hundreds of people come in here and ask, 'Where would you go,' and we tell them."
Holt asked the Florida Department of Transportation if the sign, which reads “Visitor Center,” could be placed on the side of the highway to make her business more visible while the project continues, which is scheduled to go on at least until October.
Ian Scheu, who owns the property, also wanted the sign. He contacted state Rep. Holly Raschein, whose senior staffer, Kate DeLoach, told Scheu in February that she was told FDOT had decided to allow the county to place the sign in front of the property until the project moved on from there.
Holt's husband Keith received a letter, also in February, from Patricia Ivey, FDOT project administration, stating the agency was permitting the county to place the sign in front of the business "location due to impacts from the County's drainage project and adjacent stockpile area."
"We trust you will find this satisfactory," Ivey wrote in the Feb. 11 letter.
The small blue sign, reading "Visitor Center," went up in the beginning of March. Two weeks later, the county took the sign down but it was back up a day later. But as of April 15, the sign was gone, taken down by the county.
Judith Clarke, director of county engineering services, told Holt in an email that she had the sign taken down because it was too similar to one about two and a half miles up the highway on the 18-Mile Stretch, which also reads "Visitor Center," but is directing people to the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce.
"Since that time it has been brought to my attention that the sign creates confusion because it is the same as the Visitor Center signs that were installed by FDOT further north on U.S. 1," Clarke wrote on April 18.
The sign to which Clarke refers is for the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, about two-tenths of a mile south of the Florida Keys Visitor Center.
A representative for the chamber said the nonprofit business group did not file a complaint over the sign, but did seek "an inquiry" with the county. The chamber representative did not want to be identified. No one else from the chamber could be reached for comment.
Clarke said she became aware of the issue with the sign after being asked to join a meeting with County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy and members of the chamber.
"I did not realize when I gave permission for the temporary sign that it was exactly the same as the one up on the Stretch and it was causing confusion," Clarke said Thursday.
Clarke, who heads the Lake Surprise construction project, said she instructed crews to move their vehicles, equipment and debris in the staging area further back away from the highway so it does not obstruct the view of the Florida Keys Visitor Center.
But Holt said that doesn't go far enough.
"I have to deal with this until they're done with the project," she said. "All I wanted was a temporary sign."