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Big Key West moneymaker suffers as Wilma swirls

Officials estimate the storm is costing $5-million a day in lost revenue as the popular Fantasy Fest is delayed.

By TAMARA LUSH
Published October 24, 2005


[Times photo: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
Pedestrians walk down Key West's Duval Street, its bars, shops and restaurants boarded up as Hurricane Wilma threatens Sunday. The street is the destination for many of Fantasy Fest's events. "I normally make $5,000 in tips this week. It's not even going to be anywhere close to that now," said Greg Coffey, a bartender at Rick's on Duval.

KEY WEST - This was supposed to be a week of pure fun, of body painting and dancing naked in the streets, of drinking till dawn.

And for the legions of workers in this quirky resort town, big tips.

But Hurricane Wilma dealt a devastating economic blow to this quirky resort town even before its first squall tore through Sunday.

Fantasy Fest, a 10-day party that draws some 70,000 people and ends on Halloween, was supposed to start Friday. Now, city leaders hope to kick off the festivities Wednesday - if Wilma doesn't seriously damage the city.

It is one of the single biggest moneymakers of the year. The Key West Chamber of Commerce estimates that postponing the festival is costing the city $5-million a day.

"I normally make $5,000 in tips this week," said Greg Coffey, a bartender at Rick's, a popular dance club on Duval Street. "It's not even going to be anywhere close to that now."

Early Sunday morning, Coffey poured a few drinks for the handful of locals who grooved to hip-hop on the dance floor. Nearly all were service workers who would normally be working overtime on such a busy weekend.

The economy of Key West is almost entirely driven by tourism. That's especially so during Fantasy Fest, when many hotels increase their rates and require three-day minimum bookings.

Instead, hotels are empty, and normally packed restaurants and shops are shuttered. The few establishments that are open are feeding locals, members of the news media and cops.

Whether bartenders, waiters, housekeepers or small-business owners, nearly everyone here depends on tourists. So when a storm comes and the tourists stay away, folks nervously watch as their wallets shrink. With monthly rents upwards of $1,500 for a two-bedroom apartment, it could result in a dire situation for some.

"I see a lot of people having to leave," said Robert Goodman, a 38-year-old bartender. "It will be rough all the way to Christmas."

Chad Kapusta, a 25-year-old waiter, is already anticipating that he will pay his rent a little late, but it won't be much of a problem.

"The landlords understand," he said.

Compounding the problem: Wilma is the fourth storm to pass near the Keys this year, which means it's the fourth time tourists have fled. Businesses have closed and the city has evacuated for Dennis, Katrina, Rita and now Wilma - all in just over three months.

"It's not only what we lost in this storm," said Mark Rossi, a city commissioner, Chamber of Commerce member and a nightclub owner. "It's what we lost with the three other storms, too."

Many people here haven't saved enough money to flee the island, which is under a mandatory evacuation.

Lulu Mendoza, a hotel housekeeper from Mexico, said she's been bored during her three days off work. She would have liked to have left the island before the storm hit - but she can't.

"There's no money," she said in Spanish.

Robert Marrero, the owner of a bed and breakfast near Duval Street, said all 34 of his rooms were booked for the entire festival.

"I was looking so forward to this," he said. "And then, voila!"

Marrero said he doesn't even know how much money he is losing because of the storm. "I don't even want to think about it," he said.

He hopes Fantasy Fest organizers will start the party on Wednesday, and that his guests will return next weekend.

On one local radio station, Andy Newman of the Tourist Development Council tried to be optimistic: the pet masquerade party is tentatively a go for Wednesday.

"Right now, the party's still on," he said.

--Tamara Lush can be reached at 727 893-8612 or at lush@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 24, 2005, 00:58:06]


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