The Key West Mystique

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Promoting the Keys | Do we need the TDC to tell folks we’re here?

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.


Whenever folks in Key West and the Keys get exercised about drowning in too many visitors, the first thing we shout is “Stop promoting the Keys. Get rid of the TDC. Everyone knows we’re here.”

I’m not so sure I agree. If today, right this very minute, everyone already knows the Keys and Key West are a great place to vacation, two things are certain: (1) We’ll not be top-of-mind the next time they plan a vacation; and (2) New generations of visitors will never have heard of us.

That might soothe those who’d prefer we haul up the drawbridge to exclude everyone except permanent residents, but it would be devastating to the Keys economy. For 200 years, the Keys and Key West have catered to visitors, whether by sailing ship and railroad or automobile and airplane.

Getting rid of visitors cuts both ways. No visitors with open wallets? We’d lose not only the crowds, but any semblance of a quality of life that makes living here palatable. No cash for fixing roads and water supplies, stabilizing utilities and improving communications. No cash for buying environmentally sensitive land and hardening against sea level rise and climate change.

In short, we’d be as destitute as we were during the Great Depression and again after the U.S. Navy pulled out back in the 1970s. Sure, things were quaint back then if one was among the wealthy, but life was pretty hardscrabble for everyone else.

We need tourists and their dollars, euros, yen and pesos. We need a lot of them. The question isn’t whether we should promote the Keys; we should. The questions are how much, to whom and, most appropriate these days, who should be doing the promoting.

Key West’s Mallory Square is a quiet retreat — until sunset when the crowds gather to celebrate.

Promoting the Keys | The TDC can no longer be trusted

The Monroe County Tourist Development Council (TDC), which drives the Key West and Florida Keys marketing bus, is a multi-million-dollar, monopoly run amok. If you thought things weren’t right in the TDC marketing world after reading a preliminary audit several months ago, you were being kind.

Which brings me to Feb. 8 and the detailed audit report released by Monroe County Clerk of Circuit Court & Comptroller Kevin Madok. His 190-page audit of the TDC, in my opinion, will be devastating for NewmanPR, the TDC, the county and taxpayers. Millions of dollars appear to have been mishandled at best. As for oversight of the TDC from the county, the TDC executive board and its marketing director? Pretty much none.

The TDC can no longer be trusted.

Millions of dollars in questionable spending and bogus oversight raise the specter of criminal and civil charges. In a sane world heads would roll, the entire operation would be replaced, interim directors, board members and executives would be brought aboard and anyone associated with the old TDC regime would be cast away.

I don’t see how that can happen, because the TDC is organized much like the fox guarding the hen house. The TDC board of directors reads like a who’s who of elected officials and public figures: Rita Irwin, chair, who is president of the Dolphin Research Center; George Fernandez, vice chair, co-founder of the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory and current TDC interim marketing director; Teri Johnston, Key West mayor; Peg Laron, owner of Bay Harbor Lodge & Coconut Bay Resort; Holly Raschein, Monroe County mayor; Timothy Root, chair of the Keys Energy Utility Board; Diane Schmidt, Key West Chamber of Commerce president and general manager of the Opal Key and Sunset Key resorts; Patti Stanley, Islamorada real estate agent who runs Island Villa Rentals, a property management and vacation rental firm; and Gayle Tippett, owner StrikeZone Charters.

These are good people who have been mainstays on volunteer boards and organizations throughout the Keys. There’s no reason to doubt them personally. But this board was supposed to provide the oversight that would have avoided this mess. They did not do their jobs. In any other world, they’d be replaced with a new board.

If the TDC is to have any hope of resurrecting itself after the devastating audit, these are the people who must overhaul the organization, its staff, its vendors, its operations and its marketing philosophy. The TDC must reorganize as an official department within county government and must adhere to the county’s best practices for everything from how bills are paid to how meetings are held. That will mean rising above the conflicts of interest their very titles and their longevity on the board create.

It’s time we heard from this TDC board. Its silence is discouraging at best. The economic viability of the Keys and Key West depends on what these nine people do in the next few months.

(NOTE: The TDC will meet 10 a.m., Tuesday, Feb. 20, at the Faro Blanco Resort in Marathon. The audit is the only item on the agenda.)

Read the full report here.


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