Thursday, November 18, 2004

Change is in the air

A Letter to the Editor of the Citizen on Tuesday caught my attention, and was the subject of a couple of calls to the Citizens' Voice today.

Citizen's Voice of the Day

"I just want to make a comment about how happy I was to read Chris Belland's letter to the editor. As a parent of a 3-year-old, my wife and I don't feel that powers that be in Key West have any respect for the families that live here. It's all about the business and making a buck. Look at how outdated and filthy our public playgrounds are, also the public areas and streets are disgraceful with garbage all over most of the time. I bet Duval St. gets cleaned every day."

"Chris Belland said a mouthful. Many visitors do not respect this island we call home. The two almost naked women at the pet parade (a family event) are a case in point. Unfortunately many of our own citizens don't respect our beautiful island or their neighbors. Look at the trash people dump in our parks, the dog waste that is not picked up, dogs running free instead of being leashed, fast food wrappers in the gutters, defacing monuments, car stereos blasting late at night. Let's all appreciate the wonderful place we live and treat it and each other with a little more consideration."

Chris Belland is an officer of Historic Tours of America
or, as it is sometimes called, "Ed Swift's company". HTA is a major participant in the tourism efforts of a half-dozen cities with strong tourism programs. Their economic interests are served by large and growing numbers of tourists in the cities they serve. Key West is the flagship city for HTA and it's corporate headquarters. Ed Swift and some others began HTA in Key West in the days when Duval Street was a dusty, deserted thoroughfare of mostly boarded up stores. The City was in economic distress in those years. Ed Swift, a local boy, a Conch in the parlance of the city, had an opportunity to buy the Little Conch Train, a business founded and operated by a couple who decided to retire from the business. As tourism grew out of the 1980's and into the 1990's, HTA grew with it and fueled the expansion that eventually made them, in their own slogan, "America's Storyteller".

What HTA does, it does well. Their tours are carefully scripted, rehearsed, and delivered in a style that allows the personality of the individual driver-guides to come through. HTA operates ancillary facilities -- gift shops, ice cream stands, historic attractions, even an aquarium -- in Key West. I'm not sure if they are organized that way in other cities. Most employees in contact with the public are tip or commission driven, so hourly pay rates are generally low.

Ed Swift isn't a particularly public man, although he does participate in the affairs of this community with a passion most likely driven by his and HTA's enlightened self interest. The company's general counsel is an elected member of the Key West City Commission, a role which is looked at askance by many. Chris Belland, author of the letter to the editor is similarly active in community affairs.

The future of Historic Tours in Key West is vitally involved with the discussions now taking place in the city about its future. The Resident/Visitor Planning Committee has, I'm told, issued a draft report summarizing its work. The planning for the Truman Waterfront development is underway to an early look by the City Commission next month. The City itself is generating a strategic plan for its future in the community. Everything I sense in Key West these days is about change. You can feel it, you can see it, and you can hear it as you travel around the place.

I'll be writing about these things over time. Let me know if you have questions. Tell me what you think.

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