|By Kevin Wadlow, Florida Keys Keynoter,
MarathonMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 23, 2011--Doug Pope envisions his 50-unit resort rising more than 100 feet off the Gulf of Mexico water's surface, 16 miles northwest of Key West.
"We've talked about it since 2002. I feel very strongly about this," Pope said Tuesday. "My problem is that no one has ever done this before."
Elevated Water Resorts, a Middleburg, Fla., corporation formed in December, has requested a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to use submerged bottom in 55 feet of water for a "jack-up hotel."
That means the six-story structure, dubbed the Oceana Water Resort, would be built on a 230-foot-by-128-foot base platform, 16 feet over the water, placed on four semi-permanent pilings resting on the gulf floor.
"People spend a lot of money to go fishing," said Pope. "We're going to give them an incredible place where they can fish and enjoy the ocean environment."
He estimated construction costs at $18 million. "I feel confident we have financing in place," Pope said.
The Corps describes the project as "an offshore hotel/recreational structure" in a March 15 notice.
"Our initial determination is that the proposed action would not have a substantial adverse impact [essential fish habitat] or federally managed fisheries," the Corps said in its initial statement. A comment period for a Corps permit is open until April 14.
"The Corps seems to be very positive about it," Pope said.
Additional permits probably will be required, Pope said, but until agencies weigh in, no can say how many or from who.
The location lies outside of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary boundary and the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. Still, the sanctuary will comment on the permit request, Superintendent Sean Morton said, even though it doesn't have direct permitting authority.
"My first take on this is to be kind of cautious," said Bob Smith, a member of the Sanctuary Advisory Council and former head of the diving program at Florida Keys Community College. "It's an interesting concept but it does raise a lot of questions."
Smith said he'd seek a short extension to the comment period so the Sanctuary Advisory Council can craft a formal recommendation at its April 19 meeting.
"We have a lot of brains on the council who know how to ask the right questions," Smith said.
Patrick Rice, dean of marine science and technology at Florida Keys Community College, said with appropriate environmental safeguards, the elevated water resort "could be a demonstration project to show a clean and green way to interact with the ocean."
"A lot depends on how they plan to recycle resources and deal with waste," Rice said. "If there is no negative impact, it could be a nice place to visit and educate people on the natural beauty of the ocean."
Pope is president of Amelia Research and Recovery, a North Florida firm specializing in treasure hunting. He has worked in Key West before, running the barge Polly L. during operations on the Santa Margarita shipwreck.
"Doug Pope runs a tight ship. Safety and environmental concerns are always his top priority," said Dan Porter, director of operations for Blue Water Ventures of Key West, a local treasure firm that worked with Pope.
"I think this is a great opportunity for the Keys," Porter said. "It looks like a great business model that caters to serious fishermen."
The resort would be technically classified as a vessel since, like an oil rig, it would not be permanently anchored.
If approved, Pope plans to maintain a fleet of 15 22-foot rental boats that people could take fishing on one of 25 nearby shipwreck sites. Swimming pools, an outdoor movie theater and a powerful telescope are other attractions on the drawing board.
A staff of 35 would serve the 100 people on board at any time. Room rates would start at $600 per night. "I absolutely guarantee this will be a positive influence on the environment," Pope said. "We'll encourage guests to collect any garbage they find in the water."
Sunset Key in Key West Harbor would serve as the base for ferry operations, Pope said.
"People ask about hurricanes," Pope said. "I really believe this would be the most substantial structure in the Keys. We're talking more 4 million pounds of steel."
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