The Key West Mystique

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Key West, Florida Keys: We’re not small towns anymore and that’s a problem

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


With its 81,708 residents, Monroe County, aka the Florida Keys, is a collection of makeshift small towns ranging from tiny Layton at 206 at the top of the Keys to Key West at mile marker zero with its 25,597.

You don’t need to remember any of those U.S. Census numbers. I mean, what’s a few folks either way, right? What’s important, at least to me, is that from one end of the Keys to the other we face big city, mainland-size challenges and we’re skeptical — at best — of collaborating.

We are not small towns anymore and that’s a soon-to-be whopping big problem. We want to be small towns; we want to preserve our small town cultures. Lovely idea except that none of these towns, starting with Key West, independently have the political clout, financial resources or human capital to tackle today’s challenges.

Even if all 81,708 residents were united under one governmental organizing umbrella, say at the county level, the Keys would still be what I describe as a “one off” to the outside world. Few take us seriously in Tallahassee. Oh, we like to think we count, but not even the all-red Monroe County commissioners and the equally red voters up the Keys have much sway in the state capital. We are too small to count for much other than an occasional photo op or a run on home rule.

We are fragmented and poorly positioned to take on the problems facing the Keys. We’ve got two or three or 10 of everything. Multiple housing authorities, even though Key West’s and the county’s ostensibly are supposed to operate together. Multiple fire and law enforcement agencies. Multiple public works departments. Multiple legal departments. Multiple workforce and affordable housing efforts. Navigating a transaction that needs local, county, state and federal paperwork can be a lesson in Sisyphus’s big rock.

Key West Island News

Small towns | How can we work together?

If we’re to have any chance of ensuring a strong future for the Keys and our local towns, we are going to have to put aside our skepticism about working together. For instance:

Water: We’ve been living with reduced water pressure for months. It’s estimated repairing our water infrastructure will tickle billions of dollars. Soaring demand follows tourism, residential development, climate change and drought. Yet, no one at the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority publicly seems particularly bothered.

Water in the Keys is controlled by the FKAA. It reports to itself. Key West City commissioners and Monroe County commissioners can request an update from FKAA’s seemingly untouchable CEO and he’ll do just what he did before Key West commissioners: Say all is just fine; don’t worry your pretty little heads.

“Contrary to what you have heard, we do have a plan,” Greg Veliz told Key West commissioners. “There is no water crisis. There is no lack of funding. We are not running out of anything.” Unfortunately no one asked him when we were going to get water pressure back.

Electricity: Most of us know Keys Energy, the old City Electric. Few of us know the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative Association, Inc. out of Tavernier, which supplies power to the mid- and upper Keys. Both those suppliers buy energy from other sources. Both companies are beholden to themselves with little oversight from municipalities.

Workforce: I love seeing pictures in the paper and on social media of Keys folks doing good for their community and companies. What strikes me is the photos are filled with people who look like me, which means they’re soon, if not already, gone from the workforce. We do not have enough locally grown employees and we can’t import them because they can’t afford to live here.

The workforce will get slimmer as baby boomers and Gen Xers retire and because there is no where to live and raise a family. We can’t build ourselves out of this mess, I know, but for heaven’s sake, the cities and the county ought to be working together seamlessly. Instead, housing is a mess.

There was a time in the oft-lamented past when Key West ruled the Keys. Everything “up the Keys” was tiny, not particularly well-developed and certainly not equipped with political chops. Up the Keys, rather they liked it or not and mostly they didn’t, were beholden to the wealthy libertarians, Conchs and military who were the deciders for all that happened in the Keys. Those days are gone.

We have become an ill-fitting patchwork of grudges, laments and “not in my town” ideologies. We cannot continue to spar with each other, to play the red-versus-blue political cards or let utilities and authorities run unaccountable. We must find a path to Keys-wide collaboration.


  1. Richard Vedder

    The Keys sure have changed since I camped on Christmas Tree Island and climbed the Sand Key Lighthouse in 1971. While The Keys are an extreme case, so much of America got it wrong. Wealthy Long Island zoned, built, and chased the work force away and now they’re paying the price. As it turns out, much of America’s municipalities chased off their children and grandchildren with not-in-my-backyard zoning. Yes, we’ve been building castles in the sand. The chickens are coming home to roost and we’re only approaching the cusp of widespread calamities.

  2. sandy

    And we keep building WORK FORCE HOUSING to get tax deals for developers.
    Give me a brake.

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