|By Michael Welber, Florida Keys Keynoter, Marathon|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 23, 2005 - It's no secret that many consider the Keys' most critical issue to be the lack of workforce housing. And that issue, according to Joy Smatt, general manager of the upscale Pier House Resort and Caribbean Spa in Key West, has grown worse each year.
She should know.
With a long career in the hospitality industry, Smatt arrived at the Pier House in 1993. That provides her with a solid perspective on the changes that have occurred both in Key West and throughout the Keys.
Smatt became chairwoman of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West in October and she has helped focus the attention and energy of the trade group on looking for solutions to the problem. The association has also adopted the issue of air service to Florida Keys Marathon Airport as a key element of its mission.
"We need to find a way to provide reasonable housing for those who work for us," she said. "Last year we [the Pier House] had only 65 percent turnover, which was good. Typically the rate is over 100 percent each year."
The Pier House feels the pinch particularly in the area of front desk workers, who have a difficult job. On the frontlines of any hotel or inn, they have to face the wrath of guest complaints and other problems. Though the Pier House raised its hourly rates for these workers, the situation did not improve much.
Every hotel throughout the island chain faces the same problem. With real estate prices climbing at 2 to 3 percent per year, the possibility for any of these hourly workers actually purchasing a home gets more elusive daily.
The Pier House has made a stab at helping by leasing bedrooms out in a nine-unit housing area. The hotel picks up the tab for furniture and utilities and pays a portion of the rent. Smatt realizes full well that people actually prefer to have their own housing.
"They end up having to have two or even three jobs to pay their bills," she said. "As a result we have just terrible turnover."
Paradoxically, the Lodging Association is pushing to restore air service to the Marathon airport. Wouldn't such service actually increase tourism and, therefore, the pressure on getting and retaining employees?
Smatt pointed to a report the Lodging Association commissioned that indicates that lodging units in the Keys are not maxed out.
"Even now, at the height of the season, people are getting discounted rates during the week," she said.
Smatt and the Lodging Association are now making a Keyswide effort to drum up support for the Marathon airport, which hasn't had major commercial service for five years.
Always with strong membership in Key West, the group is looking for more members in the rest of the island chain and, thereby, establish the Keys as one destination rather Key West as one, the rest of the Keys as another.
The hope is to relieve the pressure on Key West International Airport's aging and inadequate terminal. Though more flights can come into Key West, the terminal there cannot handle more passengers. That situation was aggravated when the security area grew, leaving even less space for passengers.
Monroe County, Key West and Marathon are joining to initiate new bus service between Marathon and the Southernmost City, and that may help facilitate service in Marathon by providing a regular means for getting from there to the Southernmost City, and back.
Smatt started in the hospitality business back in 1961. Born in Jamaica, she was working in Trinidad and wanted to be a flight attendant. A friend owned a small hotel there and encouraged her to give hotel work a try. She loved it immediately and her career was launched.
Later she worked for the Sheraton corporation in Fort Lauderdale, which trained her, and eventually ended up at the Pier House. Does she still like the business?
"I still love it," she said. "There's nothing else I'd rather be doing.
Every day brings a different challenge and it's never boring."
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