After tense debate, the Key West City Commission approved a nonprofit’s plan to sink $500,000 into a portion of a city-owned building behind City Hall to build a community kitchen in which to prepare meals for delivery to poor children and the elderly.
Star of the Sea Mission, based in Stock Island, won a federal grant to start the program about a year ago.
Nonprofit leaders and Monroe County’s health officer Bob Eadie praised the program that feeds some 1,000 kids and senior citizens but there was enough opposition at Wednesday’s commission meeting to make for a heated debate.
SOS Executive Director Tom Callahan said he was incredulous that anyone could oppose the project, which will proceed and take up part of the old Glynn Archer School gym behind City Hall, 1300 White St.
“It boils down to not in my backyard,” Callahan said.
“This is a no-brainer,” said Elmira Leto, executive director of the housing program Samuel’s House.
From Key West to Key Largo, SOS has delivered meals to afterschool programs, such as the Southernmost Boys and Girls Club and the Bahama Village Music Program, where employees said children show up hungry.
Only City Commissioner Margaret Romero dissented. Jimmy Weekley was absent Wednesday and the measure required a super-majority to pass.
“This thing has been rushed through very, very quickly,” Romero said, resulting in Callahan, who doesn’t take a salary, to call her version of her opposition to the plan “disingenuous at best.” He said she tried to derail the project from the start.
Romero sent Callahan a 12-page letter filled with 300 questions, according to Callahan, who chose not to respond.
The 5-1 vote came after commissioners Sam Kaufman and Billy Wardlow raised concerns about how the working kitchen would affect the neighborhood and promised to keep an eye on it.
“If we vote no tonight, this program won’t happen,” Kaufman said.
Commissioner Richard Payne praised the proposal. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
While several neighbors rose to complain the kitchen would become a sound and smell nuisance that would disrupt their residential blocks, others reminded them they had only recently been living next-door to an elementary school.
Commissioner Clayton Lopez said programs such as SOS’ meal delivery make a huge difference in the lives of many local families.
“It’s the edge between complete and utter poverty and maintaining a roof over your head and food in your children’s bellies,” Lopez said. “We have to be our brother’s keepers.”
A city employee pulled a fire alarm during Wednesday’s commission meeting but it was a misunderstanding due to a language barrier, city spokeswoman Alyson Crean said.
Blaring noise and flashing lights interrupted the meeting and many people went outside while Police Chief Donie Lee and other officials remained in the commission meeting room.
Ludaime Vega, who was hired to help clean the new City Hall, was in the parking lot when she heard an odd noise she couldn’t identify. She saw a fire alarm and looked up the word “pull” on a Spanish-to-English translator app on her phone, Crean said.
She then pulled the alarm, right in front of security cameras.
“It was a complete accident,” Crean said Friday, and the woman is not in any trouble at work.
Attorney Michael Halpern joked about the incident while speaking in favor of the SOS plan, calling it “God’s kitchen.”
“You have an attorney at the podium,” Halpern said. “Now is the time for the fire alarm to go off.”
Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen