Put bridge under the same rules

By Steve Estes

If the Monroe Board of County Commissioners really has serious thought about putting more than $12 million into the old 7-Mile Bridge span that connects Marathon to Pigeon Key, then we believe the backers of the project should be asked to do the same thing that was asked of the backers of the purchase of Rowell’s Marina in Key Largo.

Before the commission could muster the necessary super majority vote to pay $5 million for Rowell’s Marina in Key Largo, commissioners individually asked for a business plan that showed how the park could run without being a further drain on the county’s general fund maintenance budget.

And we would ask that the backers of the old 7-Mile Bridge project do the same.

The rental fees that will come from Rowell’s may well cover the costs eventually of the purchase and the ongoing operations and maintenance costs. The purchase of Rowell’s was a good idea solely for one reason in our opinion.

By putting Rowell’s into public ownership, another piece of our ever-disappearing waterfront access is preserved.

Too much of the public waterfront access in the Keys has disappeared over the years as private companies have bought up that vital property and redeveloped it into private waterfront homes and condos or put up hotels that allow exclusive use of that waterfront to the owners and visitors of those sites.

The same thing has happened up and down the coastline of Florida, squeezing the residents of this state out of public use of the thousands of miles of waterfront this state had.

Here in the Keys, public boat ramps have slowly disappeared as private entities purchased the land and locked the property off from public use. Some of the best beachfront has been sold to private entities who now make millions that could have been public money had things been planned better along the way.

But that’s history we can’t change.

The future of the old 7-Mile Bridge has yet to be written, and the chance to preserve a significant piece of our history, retain what is one of the most breath-taking views in the Keys, and potentially develop a viable source of revenue is ready for our leadership to grab.

The fact that the old 7-Mile Bridge span is really the only economically viable route to the historical site on Pigeon Key shouldn’t be the driving force for entering into a multi-million dollar project. It should, instead, be a satisfying intended consequence.

Visitors to Pigeon Key, no matter how prolific in years to come, will never be the economic catalyst that keeps the county out of the business of pouring more taxpayer dollars into the continuing operation and maintenance of the old 7-Mile Bridge.

Now, while the talks are still in their infancy, our leadership should be trying to lock the state into a long-term, minimal-dollar lease arrangement that comes with the ability to generate revenue from the site.

The old bridge was, at one time, a favorite hangout for locals and tourists to catch a view of our sensational sunrises and sunsets That use has been all but forgotten in the drive to preserve access to Pigeon Key.

So we need to start now with a small committee of tourist-industry representatives, conservation organization representatives, business managers and artists to develop a self-sustaining vision for the future uses of the old bridge.

It’s not hard to envision a Key West Mallory Square festival park being developed on that bridge once the structural issues are cleared up with a consortium of public money from the state, county. Tourist Development Council and Marathon.

Spaces could be leased, equaling revenue. Sunset concerts could be promoted, equaling revenue. Maybe the power boats can be enticed back with minimally priced ticket sales for bridge viewing of the event. Artists can ply their wares as part of the festival of sunset, maybe sunrise,  and other artisans can use the venue to promote themselves.

Attractions and businesses in the Lower Keys could use the venue to promote themselves to the tourists who would undoubtedly stop there on their way to somewhere else just to see what all the color and commotion is about.

There are a myriad of ideas floating around out there that can, and should, merit some serious consideration.

With the right planning and forethought the old 7-Mile Bridge could easily turn into a showpiece for the Middle and Lower Keys.

This is the thought process that should dominate the future conversations concerning the old span that is an integral part of our history, and could well become an integral part of our future.

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