Key West's long-neglected black community is the focus of a redevelopment plan.
By David Villano
Twenty-five years ago, Key West businessman Ed Swift looked at the boarded-up shops and crumbling storefronts along Duval Street, the city's main drag, and saw gold. Since then, his company, Old Town Key West Development, has been leading the transformation of the historic district into party town. But with locals complaining about exorbitant rents and tourists turned off by all the chain stores and T-shirt shops, Duval has begun losing favor, and Swift is turning his attention a few blocks away to the island's long-neglected black community, Bahama Village.
Three years ago, Swift and a group of investors began acquiring and renovating vacant properties in the area. The group hopes to lease at least 70% of the space to black business owners eager to tap into the tourist economy. As of May, six new businesses had been launched, including an art gallery, a gift shop and a Caribbean restaurant. Swift believes the area's cultural heritage and authentic island charm can be a tourist draw. "This is the last true Key West conch community," says Swift, who is also president of Historic Tours of America, the operator of Key West's Conch Tour Train and trolley tours in four other cities. "It's the only untouched historic village we have left."
For that reason, Swift hopes the area's black residents and property owners will follow his lead. If they don't, others will, and much of Bahama Village could fall into the hands of off-island speculators and other absentee landlords. That, he fears, would destroy its greatest draw: its distinctive island culture.
To encourage black-owned startups, Swift is helping to evaluate business plans and has co-signed bank loans for some tenants. Lease rates at his 3,800-sq.-ft. Bahama Market Village retail center at the corner of Petronia and Whitehead streets -- just down the street from Duval -- are offered at a steep discount, he says. He's also enlisted a local black businessman, Norman Moodie, as a minority partner and would-be mentor to black entrepreneurs. And to bring in customers, Swift instructed the Conch Tour Train to detour through Bahama Village.
But Swift's goodwill may not be enough. Moodie, who owns and operates the nearby Caribbean House hotel, says few island blacks are taking advantage of the opportunity. About half of the retail space at Bahama Village Market remains empty.
Community activist Norma Jean Sawyer, a fourth-generation island resident, blames a lack of capital, not enthusiasm, for the reluctance. Island living is so costly that few working-class residents -- black or white -- can afford to quit their jobs and invest in a startup. What's more, she adds, there is little tradition of black entrepreneurship in the Florida Keys. Few role models exist. "We know redevelopment will come, but I'm not sure the African-American community is prepared to be part of that," Sawyer says.
Swift, who moved to Key West in 1960, is undaunted. "Changing Duval Street was a long, hard process. And we expect this to be another long, hard process. But I know it's the right way to go."
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