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Keep to the Code

              by John V. Gallant

There are vital reasons for Upper Keys residents to huddle together right now to work on our local problems. The national political scene is nutty and the state legislature and organs like FDOT seem to operate in total isolation.  This article is meant to be a wake-up call to all of us, and I hope it will serve as constructive notice that we are standing on the edge waiting to be pushed in.  Only as a unified group will we be able to avoid the same fate of small communities that were overrun.

I consider myself a local for many reasons. I care about this community, I care about its environment, I care about our collective issues, and I care about all of you who are reading this. I care about you even if you don’t agree with me on some topics. I see so many of you pulling, pushing, and dragging us toward a better place. I see you walking back to pick up a cigarette butt some visitor carelessly threw out their window as you are waiting for the bridge to go back down. And I love it.

I believe that a local is anyone who lives here full or part time and: cares about this community, cares about this community’s environment, cares about this community’s collective issues, and cares about all of us living here. As I do enjoy making up words and phrases, please indulge me as I repurpose the phrase ‘keeping to the code’. Another friend calls it ‘Keys Honor’.  I see it as a set of rudimentary guidelines for those of us who want to protect our community, its environment, its issues, and its residents.

All those people in the crawling cars on US1 bring dollars to our community. Even if you don’t work directly in the tourism industry, those tourist dollars flow through the people who do. Even if you aren’t ecstatic about it, those dollars benefit you either directly or indirectly. Our government, our hospitals, our parks, our sheriff, and our fire personnel provide services subsidized by tourist dollars. Sometimes those dollars work their way back down through Tallahassee, but they do get here!  (Thank you, Holly!)  So even if you are retired, or independently wealthy, your quality of life has been improved by tourist spending in some way or another.

There are some strong feelings in respect to the Tourist Development Council (TDC) and their campaigns to bring visitors and their money to The Keys. I am told that the TDC is looking at the quality of the visitors they bring when they discuss how to direct their effort and spending. This is an important metric, and they should be lauded for these efforts. We most certainly do not need visitors who take all they can, only leaving packaging and wrappers.

I would really love to see some of the TDC funds earmarked for more FWC Officers and boats to protect our natural resources from the heinous poaching activities we have seen in July. Okay, I don’t want to see anyone harassed for an out of date flare or other minor infractions, but the thieving, robbing, larcenous pilfering of our community’s natural resources needs to be dealt with swiftly and painfully. It’s an attack on our Code… on our honor.

As locals, we can choose to be snooty, or we can choose to be welcoming to others who may not have the same “time served on the island”. It is my opinion that our community and our environment will receive better treatment if we are more welcoming to visitors and new residents.

We should not mistake being welcoming with being a welcome mat. For those who don’t treat our island’s, residents, and visitors properly I propose banishment!  Or something equally unpleasant. However, I do believe we should be warm and friendly to those who do respect our Island. It can be as simple as waving from boat to boat.

As a younger man, I spent much more time on two wheels, rather than four. I also spent a lot more time on the water. It was extremely rare then that bikers or boaters didn’t recognize each other with a simple wave of their hand. It’s becoming more uncommon today, and I think it is a shame.

So, back to this ‘keeping to the code’ or ‘Keys Honor’ thing, I like ice cream.

I tell my girlfriend that we should take Jude (her little guy) out for ice cream because he wants to go, but I very rarely confess that it’s actually for me. We could get a gallon from Publix for less, but somehow it’s just not as good, or as much fun.

If I truly value that experience, which I certainly do, I should make a concerted effort to go more often. I should vote “with my feet” to make sure the local ice cream shop remains there long-term. Keeping the local shop alive well beyond the date Jude turns 18 is important to me. Even if, at that point, I finally admit to my girlfriend that the trips have secretly been about me wanting to eat like the fat kid I am. But until that day comes, our local ice cream shops will have my patronage and support under the guise that it was at the request of my unsuspecting four-year-old accomplice

The same goes for other local community-based businesses in the area. Payfair and The Trading Post offer unique things that you aren’t going to get with a large box commercial store. (The Trading Post has the best bananas in town!)  It’s local flavor that would leave a void in the community if they weren’t here. The people and small businesses we have are what makes this such a special place. And now more than ever, local businesses need our support.

Which leads me to one of my main points:  Supporting local businesses over corporate interests is key to protecting our area. I don’t begrudge Publix their ability to sell cheaper Spaghetti-o’s, but if we lose our small businesses, I fear we will lose a large part of our identity and community support. Local businesses don’t send profits out of county to their corporate headquarters. And local business owners do support their local community more than larger corporations. One example of this type of community support is the Keys Life Magazine “give it back” event, their sponsorship of The Conch Scramble, their support of other charitable events, and the support they give the community through advertising charitable events.

You might not think about the services a local Realtor® provides as being essential, but I have seen first-hand how a local agent’s knowledge has benefitted buyers and sellers. I speak of this as large corporations edge their way into the real estate business focusing on profit and sales volume. Even as I type this, Amazon.com is reportedly rolling out some sort of real estate program. On its face, it may sound attractive, but it most certainly is not going to benefit buyers or sellers.

I believe using a local real estate agent is essential. First, a local agent should understand all of the locally important topics I have discussed in articles. Something as simple as knowing your flood zone and your ground level elevation could dramatically change the sales price of a property. An example I have seen recently was around a $150,000 increase in value. Second, there are homes for sale in the area no one even knows about. Out of town agents who get an odd listing once a year have little incentive to belong to our Board of Realtors® or The Multiple Listing System (MLS). Many times the property doesn’t show up on our MLS, which means 400+ realtors here who are searching home listings for active buyers have no indication this home is on the market.

We locals should take care of each other as if we were family, because we are family. It shows every time we have a fundraiser like The Big Kahuna, where numerous people donate their time, talent and treasure. When we have someone who needs help, and people come out of the woodwork with support. When The Upper Keys Rotary Club has been raising $200,000 a year for college bound youth, and 300 volunteers show up to work the event. Many Rotarians in the upper keys are local business owners, and they have been supporting the community for a very long time.

While we may occasionally take the unique nature of this community for granted, I can guarantee you that it is an uncommon occurrence in the rest of the world. We should be proud, humbled, gracious, and thankful.

I am, but sometimes I forget too.

Sometimes I forget when I am being passed on the median, or in the center turn lane. Sometimes I forget when I read about FWC finding 140+ lobster on someone’s boat out of season, undersized, and half of them with a spear hole through their carapace. Sometimes I forget when I am out on the water, running next to mangroves, only to see trash strewn in the mangrove roots. Sometimes I forget when I think about the 40+ Queen Conch taken out of our waters, knowing that those forty-plus conch could have been the start towards the repopulation of a decimated species.

What brings me back to serenity, is thinking about the people here with whom I have formed great relationships. While we don’t always see eye to eye on every issue, we have a bond to each other and the community, and a common desire to protect and care for these small islands and their inhabitants.

We should be kinder to one another. Just because someone doesn’t share your ideology doesn’t mean they are evil, no matter what the national media tells you. If you don’t take anything else away from my ramblings, I sincerely hope the next three sentences will be emblazoned in your psyche for a long time.

  1. We are all people with hopes, dreams, aspirations, and goals; and for the most part, we are all kind, caring, and goodhearted.
  2. We can communicate with each other using tact, courtesy, and respect; for it is only with these three facets will we have an active and willing participant on the other side of any discussion.
  3. It is only though an amicable discussion will we get others to actively listen to anddigest our words.

Understanding we have more in common than not, we need to find the common ground where we can come together to be stewards of our community.  We need to have a unified voice. A unified voice against those who would pilfer our natural resources, against the disaster unfolding in Florida Bay, and against those who would pollute our waters and land. We need a unified voice in support of the people who are struggling to rent or buy an affordable place to live.  We need a unified voice in support of the nonprofits such as The Good Health Clinic, our local United Way, and other programs that benefit residents who face steadily rising costs of living.

I am sure I am guilty of falling short in practicing what I preach, but I try. Being passionate about a topic can make it difficult. We need to be the squeaky wheel, but we don’t need to be so shrill about it. There is power in numbers.  If we can find common ground and feasible solutions, we can come together and we will most certainly be heard. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the minor points of disagreement that we forget about the larger portion of our goals in which we share an accord.

There will always be a turnover in politicians.  If we can show them that regardless of their political affiliation we collectively care about x, y, and z, they will most certainly listen. I hope we can come together and start sending these messages to the right people, at the right time, and with the right message and tone.

I also hope is it breaks the cycle of political positioning and upheaval.  I hope that our state government starts to look a lot more like representation than governance. At which point we will have won. This is most certainly a battle worth fighting. The current climate of “us vs. them” doesn’t consider that we all have to live in the same fish bowl and without clean water and healthy fish, we are all going to catch the ick. So please, be kind, keep to the code, and have some ‘Keys Honor’.