By some measures, the Florida Keys have rebounded remarkably since Hurricane Irma struck a year ago as a Category 4 storm.
Lodging inventory is up to just over 90 percent of what it was when Irma came thrashing through the 125-mile-long island chain on Sept. 10, 2017. Cruise passengers again are thronging through Key West’s main drag of Duval Street, and getting reservations at prime restaurants is back to being an advance-planner’s game. Only two hotels in Key West have yet to reopen. The debris that lined the Overseas Highway for months is now long gone; in Key Largo and Islamorada, drive-through visitors will barely notice a difference.
But there are other signs that aren’t so cheery, like the typed announcement on the door of 925 Duval Street in Key West:
Closed for business.
For 19 years, Duval Street’s round-the-clock Denny’s restaurant drew locals and tourists looking to sop up a night of drinking, treat the family or simply grab a cheap bite to eat.
Owner Stan Jackowski, who has a second Key West Denny’s — one with a full bar — off North Roosevelt Boulevard blames Hurricane Irma for the closure that left 25 former employees out of work. Jackowski said most of them will work at the remaining Denny’s; others found new jobs.
“A lot of people moved out and business revenues never came back,” Jackowski said. “Regardless of what anybody in the service industry tells you, business has been down about 30 percent.”
Denny’s joins a dozen empty storefronts on Duval Street, Key West’s main drag famous for entertainment, as “for rent” signs have popped up along the sidewalks.
The Duval Street closures are just a tiny bite out of the Florida Keys tourism industry, worth $2.7 billion a year from 4 million-plus tourists who drive an industry responsible for more than half of all Keys jobs.
Key West was spared the agony of Irma’s wrath through the Lower and Middle Keys, where Big Pine Key and Marathon took the brunt of the Category 4 hurricane. Much of the damage was limited to foliage and roof tiles resulting in debris, save for a few buildings here and there. Ocean Key Resort & Spa Sunset Pier — a popular spot for viewing the nightly sunset celebration — is set to open during October’s Fantasy Fest.
But Irma exacerbated the Keys long-running housing shortage, trimming back available workforce housing and boosting rents —all while wages stayed stagnant
For those who make a living from Keys tourism, September has always been the cruelest month. It’s not uncommon for businesses to shutter until high season returns. Irma has only made the summer doldrums even worse.
“It was a punch in the face,” said Ken Lawson, president and CEO of Visit Florida, the state’s public-private tourism development agency.
In Key West alone, bed tax collections are down nearly 7 percent from from Oct. 1, 2017 to June 30, for a shortfall of $1.1 million. Countywide, bed tax collections for the period were down 15.1 percent — or $4.5 million, said Stacey Mitchell, director of the tax-supported Keys Tourist Development Council. Those numbers don’t account for the three weeks in September 2017 after Irma hit
Statistics by hospitality tracking firm STR tell a similar story. As of July, the last month available, overall Keys lodging inventory was down about 11 percent. Hoteliers were able to charge about the same as last year, but with the loss in the number of rooms, revenues are also off about 11 percent over last June and July.
“A lot of our businesses in the Keys are just reopening or they might not have the financial reserves to get through a very lean, late summer,” Mitchell said. “In years past, you had a bang up year and you had some money in savings. This year, you may not have those reserves.”
Some businesses are still closed; others are just now reopening.
In the Lower Keys, Key West’s Parrot Key Resort and Laureate (the former Bayside) are still closed; so is tony Little Palm Island off Little Torch Key (slated for a 2020 relaunch). The 75-acre Sunshine Key RV Resort & Marina on Ohio Key just reopened 100 sites; all 399 are slated for completion by Oct. 1. But the KOA campground on Sugarloaf Key isn’t expected to reopen until 2019.
On the Atlantic side, Bahia Honda State Park’s Loggerhead Beach is slated to reopen late this month. On the park’s bayside, Calusa Beach and its Buttonwood and Bayside campgrounds are already open to guests.
Bahia Honda’s oceanfront Sandspur Beach and campground are scheduled to reopen by late 2019.
The Keys “are still rebounding,” said Sheldon Suga, vice president and managing director of Hawks Cay, a 61-acre oceanfront resort near Marathon that reopened Aug. 30 after a $50 million renovation. “It’s not back to its normal levels yet.”
Like many hotels and restaurants, Hawk’s Cay confronts a shortage of employee housing. “We did have a couple people who had to rebuild their homes and yet they still showed up for work,” Suga said. In the post-Irma era, Hawk’s Cay has added a second bus to bring workers down from the mainland, hopes to have a workforce of over 300 by December, when season is in full swing.
In many ways, the Upper Keys appears to have recovered, despite devastation that took out just about every major resort in the four-Island Village of Islamorada as well as some popular Key Largo hotels. Islamorada’s Cheeca Lodge reopened in March after a $25 million renovation that included a new fishing pier, spa, lobby and rooms. Nearby Moorings Village and Chesapeake Resort are also receiving guests; Bud n Mary’s marina and resort has fully reopened. Guy Harvey’s oceanside Islander Resort remains closed, though its bayside facilities are open. Postcard Inn and Marina, at the former Holiday Isle Resort, expects to reopen in October. Still, Islamorada is down about 450 hotel rooms from pre-Irma inventory.
Key Largo suffered somewhat less damage than Islamorada. “Key Largo, in my opinion, was the most fortunate of all the Keys,” said Elizabeth Moscynski, president of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce.. “We have had only a few businesses close, and all of our hotels, with the exception of one, are back online.”
While the Hilton Key Largo at mile marker 97 was hit hard by winds and waves, the hotel brand rebuilt it as part of its Curio Collection of luxury resorts; it is scheduled to reopen as the 200-room Baker’s Cay Resort later this fall. On the Atlantic side, the 240-unit Ocean Point Pointe Suites at Key Largo at mile marker 92.5 was renovated and reopened last spring.
“We are fully open and completed a full renovation of the entire resort,” said Adrian Besil, director of sales and marketing. “We’ve also added new amenities including an activities center, which provides experiences such as eco-tours, bicycle rentals and beach yoga for our resort guests.”
Still, many lost out entirely on the lucrative winter season. Wet weather early in the summer was another blow.
The Keys’ first all-inclusive, the Bungalows Key Largo, is scheduled to open this fall on the bay side of mile marker 99..
The popular and iconic Snappers Key Largo bar and restaurant, on the ocean side of mile marker 94.5, was badly damaged by Irma. Surge flooded its famous Turtle Club tiki bar, kitchen and indoor dining area, but owner Peter Althuis and his staff became a symbol of Keys resiliency.
Days after the storm, Snappers was serving drinks from a cooler and feeding customers from a household barbecue. A few weeks later, a food truck that was already on site before the storm became Snappers’ kitchen.
“We started out with a few burgers and hot dogs on the barbecue and a couple of coolers of drinks,” Althuis said. “We had the first five days of happy hour 100 percent off, because we didn’t have anything. It was only the locals, and to us, it was important to be open”
A few months ago, Althuis finally received the necessary county permits to rebuild the indoor dining room and kitchen, but he’s still waiting to get the go-ahead to rebuild the outdoor Turtle Club.
“We have a letter for determination of rights now, and it’s all heading in the right direction, but I still don’t have the permits as we speak for the Turtle Club,” he said.
Insurance has also been an issue, particularly wind insurance, which Althuis says he receives through Lloyd’s of London. “Flood insurance is helping us pretty well. We didn’t receive all of it, but we did receive a big part of it,” Althuis said. “Wind insurance? At first they said there was no wind at all. It’s one of the biggest insurers in the world. Despite the fact that everybody knows there was 140-, 150-mph winds, they said there was no wind damage.”
That has also impacted payouts from business interruption insurance, Althuis said. “They have to acknowledge there is wind damage, and then the business interruption insurance kicks in,” he said.
Irma’s toll is still deeply felt by tourism workers. Many lost both jobs and homes.
“We had mobile homes that washed away. They can’t come back,” said Judy Hull, president of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce. “We had people living in downstairs enclosures that washed away. They can’t come back. When we lost the housing, we lost the employees.”
With the loss of those rooms and the tourists who filled them, many workers, both who lived in the Keys or commuted by bus from Homestead and Florida City, left town for good. Hull estimates her chamber members lost about 1,000 employees. That includes about 130 residents, according to Islamorada Village Manager Seth Lawless. Many lived in a pair of mobile-home parks at mile marker 87.
“We lost water sports workers, sport fishing captains, service industry people,” Hull said. “The whole makeup of our community has changed.”
The lack of workforce housing will hit the local economy even harder when the remainder of the hotel units come back into service because businesses won’t be ready with enough employees, Hull said. “When we get fully back online, we’re going to feel it,” she said.
To prepare, the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring a Sept. 24 job fair in South Miami-Dade County to recruit potential employees. While a large portion of Upper Keys workers still come from Homestead and Florida City, Hull said village businesses need to find more sources.
“We feel as though we have saturated the Homestead market and are now moving into South Miami,” she wrote in a recent announcement to chamber members.
She’s proposing that major businesses like Publix and the larger hotels charter a bus, so South Dade workers would not have to drive the hour or hour and a half back and forth every day. Currently, the Florida Department of Transportation runs a bus that takes workers to and from the Homestead area.
Sun Communities. which owns the land beneath the destroyed mobile home parks at mile marker 87, is in the planning process on a 152-unit mix of recreational vehicle lots and permanent manufactured houses. But, it’s not clear when the project will be complete, or if the people who once lived there will be able to buy or rent the new units.
Sun is offering to sell residents the new homes at cost, with prices ranging from $35,000 to $100,000, the company’s president and chief operating officer John McLaren told residents in September 2017.
But Jennifer Cullen, a former resident, said Sun is reconfiguring the lots to fit the homes the company is selling and ordering the few trailers that weren’t completely destroyed off the property — including her damaged 2015 mobile home. Even at cost, the new homes, will be beyond the means of most residents who lived there pre-storm.
“Lot rents ranged from $930 to $1,200 a month,” Cullen said. “Add in a mortgage for the new homes they are selling, utilities and insurance, and this is far from affordable housing.”
“Sun Communities has the opportunity to help the community with this crisis, but has chosen money over people,” she said.
Jim Hoekstra, senior vice president of operations and sales, did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.
Even though Cullen lost just about everything, she decided to stay in the Keys. After she, her boyfriend, and their two dogs spent three weeks living in their car, she bought a travel trailer for $30,000 that a friend allows her to keep behind her business. Though Cullen has a house in Pennsylvania that she rents out, she’s trying to stay in the Keys.
But, she says, she’s running out of options. “I’m getting to the point now where I’m ready to give up,” Cullen said.
IF YOU GO
Job fair: Islamorada Chamber of Commerce job fair at the Pinecrest Cypress Gardens Room, 1100 Red Road, Sept. 24 noon until 4 p.m. Call (305) 664-4503 for more information.
Keys tourism information: //fla-keys.com/