A multi-use community center and green space are priorities for 6.6 acres of the Truman Waterfront in Key West previously assigned, via lease, to a now-defunct housing group.

That's according to consensus reached Saturday, when more than 200 residents showed up for a communitywide planning session.

They identified a 17,500-square-foot former U.S. Navy mess hall as the likely building to use for recreation, vocational training, conference space and a Bahamian cultural museum, among other things.

Building affordable housing was also considered a priority at the session, facilitated by Rafael Montalvo from the Florida Conflict Resolution Consortium Consensus Center at Florida State University.

To some in the room, the plan seemed very familiar, comprising many proposals pitched by the former Bahama Conch Community Land Trust, which shut down on the heels of a damning financial audit ordered by city commissioners.

In a 2006 referendum, voters said yes to allowing the Land Trust to lease the 6.6-acre chunk of the 33-acre property. However, negotiations on specific terms of the lease were never finalized prior to the group's planned dissolution.

"Isn't it amazing," long-time Land Trust board member Bob Kelly said. "It does certainly look a whole lot like our plan, over which we have no proprietary ownership or anything like that. If somebody wanted to pick up that plan and run with it...."

The Land Trust proposed 80 housing units, community gardens and markets, plus a retail component to serve as the economic driver supporting a dedicated community center.

"What I heard was confirmation of what I went into the meeting with: That the core elements of the former BCCLT plan be moved forward," District 6 Commissioner Clayton Lopez said.

"Workforce housing is a must for the 6.6 acres. However, it can't be the only goal. The old plan called for more than we currently need and more than we can reasonably sustain in the foreseeable future."

Other proposals for revenue generators were a restaurant associated with a culinary/hospitality training institute, and conference space available for private use.

"I thought it was very interesting," Mayor Craig Cates said "Community center and green space -- that's about the cheapest thing we can do, anyway."

He said the Navy mess, which currently contains Key West Police Department Mounted Patrol stables and the Police Athletic League boxing ring, cuts out the need and expense associated with putting up a new building.

"You don't need anything too elaborate," he said. "You've got be careful what you put there that homeless don't move in on it. I think being used is the best thing for it to keep the homeless out of there."

No matter what the ultimate plan is for the 6.6 acres, it all comes down to money -- and there isn't any.

"We do not have any money, whether it be appropriated for this fiscal year or projected for appropriation in out years ... for the improvements in that 6.6 acres," Assistant City Manager Mark Finigan said.

"That's not to say it couldn't appear there through the budgetary process if staff or the commission wanted to put something in there. Of course, it'd have to get balanced with all the other capital requirements."

Cates and Finigan both said there could be funding available through the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, which levies and collects a 5 percent tax on lodging nights designed to reinvest tourism dollars in the county.

It's more complicated than that, according to TDC Executive Director Harold Wheeler, who pointed out that appropriate expenditures of bed-tax revenue are "explicitly defined" by establishing state statute.

"I don't believe just a standard term of 'community center' would be a permissible expenditure of bed-tax dollars as defined by state statute," Wheeler said. However, things like museums, auditoriums and waterfront parks are appropriate uses, he said.

Another funding source broached over the weekend that has previously been absent from Truman Waterfront development discussions is the use of the city Tax Increment Fund, which comes from a special property tax in the downtown Community Redevelopment Area that includes Bahama Village in District 6 and the Caroline Street Corridor.

That money is put back into those areas by way of public infrastructure improvements like sidewalks, streetlights and historic preservation projects.

Part of that redevelopment area overlaps a portion of the 6.6 acres along Fort Street. The overlap does not include the Navy mess.

"I would think that any portion of the overlap would be a candidate for TIF funding," Finigan said, "provided that the improvement or the program or the project comported with the underlying allowances in the CRA plan."

"TIF funding could be used for some of that because some of the property does lie within the CRA," Lopez said. "The area immediately alongside Fort Street should be residential parking, a community garden and possibly a dog park."

Another recurring theme from the three-hour confab was how any development on the 6.6 acres should economically benefit Bahama Village.

The residential area, historically a blighted neighborhood, represents a rare enclave of un-gentrified Key West mixed with a burgeoning restaurant/retail scene, presumably predicated by Petronia Street being situated as a major artery into the Truman Waterfront once developed.

The Navy conveyed the Truman Waterfront to the city in 2002 as part of the base closure program.

Many multi-generational Bahama Village families point to that conveyance, and its underlying intent, as penance of sorts for the military "taking" the land in the first place around World War II. That assertion does not stand uncontested.

"This is a gesture on the part of the Navy to do the right thing," Lopez said. "The Navy did purchase many private properties. Some of it was my own family's land. Few, if any, property owners got their property's true value. When the federal government wanted land, either you sold or you lost it with no compensation.

"I don't believe that the Navy actively kicked anyone out of their homes. The process, in effect, did do that, however."

"They needed it for the war effort," Naval Air Station Key West spokesman Jim Brooks said. "They purchased it at market value. The perception came from -- that this land was taken from people -- was that the Navy came in, bought the land and it was the landlords that evicted the families. It was all rental property."

From here, the discussion is set to take shape over a matter of months through formal public hearings in front of the Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Committee, Truman Waterfront Advisory Board and City Commission.

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