Hickory House finishes as loss

By Steve Estes

The often controversial, never used, money draining, abandoned black eye on the Monroe Board of County Commissioners called the Hickory House Wednesday entered its next phase of history.

On a unanimous vote with one abstention, the BOCC agreed to sell the decrepit Hickory House to big-time local developer Pritam Singh for $2 million, a net loss of $1.1 million on the property flip.

While that’s not great news by any stretch, that is the best purchase offer the county has had to take that particular albatross off our hands.

The initial reason given for the purchase of Hickory House, accomplished by three county commissioners who are no longer employed by the voters of Monroe County, was to protect disappearing waterfront for public recreation and/or commercial water uses on Stock Island.

But once the purchase was made, those county officials who bought the property never bothered to put any money into the property to achieve its supposed end result.

The property was supposed to go on the market to enhance private developments in the area, but the real estate market crashed, and those dreams tumbled into the nearby sea. There was talk at one time of refurbishing the building and leasing it to a restaurateur to make themselves and the county some money, but again, nothing ever came of those plans.

Officials raised the possibility of using the land for a fire station and community park. The location for a fire station was considered unusable due to potential traffic tie ups on the tightly packed land mass we know as Stock Island.

So Hickory House sat unused, an eyesore on the community for about eight years.

And now, the county is going to sell it for enhancement of a nearby private development, at a price considerably below its sale price originally.

At least that gets the property back on the tax rolls and bringing in some revenue to the county.

The last gasp for county residents was a suggestion from Commissioner Danny Kolhage to look into turning the property strictly into a public park/boat ramp.

When the property went through its other fact-finding missions in the last eight years, commissioners were told at times that permits would be impossible to acquire to clear the mangroves that had grown up along the sea wall from years of maintenance neglect.

Now we find they weren’t impossible, just time-consuming.

And we find that a pretty nice public park/boat ramp complex can be constructed for about $500,000.

Yes, Mayor Sylvia Murphy was right. That would make Hickory House the most expensive boat ramp in the history of the Keys. But it would save waterfront access for an area where mega-developments are already in the works, continually looking for ways to chew up more and more waterfront for high-end condos, hotels, and water sports concierge services.

From the opening bell on the discussions, it was obvious that the commissioners had already decided that selling the land was the best fit.

Commissioners didn’t feel there was enough parking for a boat ramp, although the site is an acre, larger than most boat ramp areas in the Keys. The Sheriff thought the property would become a law enforcement problem once it was opened up as a park. Commissioners believed that another boat ramp in close proximity to an existing at Key Haven wasn’t necessary.

Doubtful any of those arguments really should have carried the day.

It’s doubtful the price would have gotten any better for fallow land that needs to be destroyed before it can be rebuilt for a useful purpose, and the county has already lost eight years of tax revenues on the property, digging a deeper hole on the red side of the ledger.

But maybe that’s why keeping the land wouldn’t have been such a bad idea. Turning the land into a park/boat ramp would have ensured that the taxpayers of Monroe County had unfettered access to the waterfront, regardless of whether they could afford to live in a $1 million waterfront condo.

Once the bad deal was made, the taxpayer should have been able to reap something for their money that would have benefited the taxpayer.

This didn’t.

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