Does Key West need (or want) to be ‘saved’ Aspen-style? |

Does Key West need (or want) to be ‘saved’ Aspen-style?

I’m not bragging, but we’re just back from a couple of weeks in warmer climates, mostly Key West — sunshine, sand, temperatures in the 80s and the wracking decision of which T-shirt to wear with my shorts.

OK, I was bragging, but I’m done.

It was my first visit to Key West (clearly that’s nothing to brag about) and I was impressed by the similarities between that town and ours.

To begin on the most superficial level (where else?), these are two tourist towns, each with a celebrity author and celebrity singer-songwriter mascots.

Key West’s author is Ernest Hemingway — and the town has a serious Hemingway hangover. Having said that, I need to point to Aspen’s Hunter S. Thompson hangover — and those are two men who can very properly have hangover appended to their names.

Key West’s singer-songwriter is Jimmy Buffett. Aspen’s is John Denver.

I will leave the Mascots compare and contrast essay question for others.

There’s more of this amusing, shallow-comparison game, much more. But let’s dig deeper: Both towns can claim a wildly diverse social and cultural background.

A New York Times reporter summed up Key West’s historic “trove of unlikely characters” as “pirates, bootleggers, treasure hunters, fishermen, scoundrels, writers, artists, musicians, bohemians, Bahamians, Cubans, gays, rummies.” Key West even has an “official philosophy,” adopted by the town government: One Human Family.

I think most of us can see some clear Aspen parallels.

Except that Key West has gone much further than Aspen down the come one, come all, wide-open for tourism path.

You can see that in the intense T-shirt-shop-centric development of Duval Street, Key West’s main thoroughfare. You can see it in the mobs that waddle down that street during the day and the raucous throngs that fill the bars and spill out into that same street at night. Let’s just say that Key West draws a broader demographic than Aspen.

To be clear, there’s some damn good bars, damn good music and some damn good partying going on. We dived in and we loved it. And it’s definitely not Aspen.

That’s largely the result of decisions made and battles fought decades ago.

You know the decisions and battles I’m talking about: growth control, “saving Aspen.”

Way back when all that began — and people were a little less careful about how they phrased things — some local leaders said they didn’t want the “nickel and dimers” or the “hot-dog crowd” coming here. (They weren’t talking about hot-dog skiers, they were talking about people who bought hot dogs for dinner — instead of steak.)

After a lot of feuding and fussing (including some memorable contributions by the previously mentioned Thompson), Aspen made its decisions, passed its restrictions. And now, for better or worse — make that for better and worse — we are living with the results.

Just like that ill-fated Aspen Skiing Co. slogan, “Uncrowded by design,” Aspen is unaffordable by design.

That is, as noted, for better and worse.

And, for better and worse, Key West is sort of “Aspen un-saved.”

Our crowds are fitter. Our wallets are fatter. Our T-shirt shops are fewer. Our party bars are tamer. Much tamer.

Their colorful characters are much more colorful. Their edgy, marginal, creative crowd is, at the very least, edgier and more marginal.

And Key West is wrestling with the same issues of controlling growth that Aspen wrestled long ago — and wrestles still.

Recently, the island was embroiled in a battle over cruise ships.

Cruise ships pretty much epitomize the contrasts I have been highlighting callously. Every day in season, a cruise ship or two is docked in Key West. Throngs of passengers swarm Duval Street, eating and drinking and buying.

According an article in the Miami Herald, cruise ships bring about 800,000 tourists to Key West every year. And they spend an average of about $85 each. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), that 85 bucks wouldn’t get anyone very far in Aspen.

The battle was over a proposal to dredge out the main channel in the Key West harbor to accommodate larger cruise ships.

The two sides in that battle were pretty much what you might imagine them to be. The Chamber of Commerce led the fight to approve the plan.

The New York Times quoted one city commissioner, the owner of several Duval Street bars, as saying, “There are a lot of people in this town who make a lot of money off of cruise ships. It’s a big boost to the economy.”

Another pro-cruise-ship campaigner in the article touched on the Aspen Dilemma: “There are comments that are a little intolerant about cruise-ship people who come from Middle America and get sunburned — that doesn’t sound like ‘One Human Family’ to me. What are we going to do, ask people to show their tax returns?”

On the anti-cruise-ship side, the New York Times quotes a prominent Key West artist. “There’s already too many people. Period. People are elbow to elbow. … All of this degrades the brand. … Key West is too important to sell to the lowest bidder.”

Last fall, the election was held and Key West voted — by a margin of 3 to 1 — to reject the proposal.

So, will Key West be “saved,” Aspen style?

Well, according to the Miami Herald, after the votes were counted, a spokeswoman for the Chamber of Commerce seemed to promise a very Aspen-style continuing battle. (Think entrance to Aspen.)

According to the Herald, “Chamber PAC spokeswoman Jennifer Hulse said the referendum is binding only on the current Key West City Commission.”

In other words: It ain’t over yet.

Does Aspen need to be deeply concerned about the fate of Key West? Well, looking at what’s happening there gives us a glimpse into what might have happened here, had Aspen remained wide-open and “un-saved.” And it reminds us that the battles fought here were both inevitable and worth the struggle.

And they’re not over yet. (Is the Hotel Aspen a Main Street cruise ship?)

But — for sure — we had a great time in Key West.

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is

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