KEY WEST, FLA.—The old salts of the shrimp fleet have been undercut by Asian shellfish farmers. Flower children who hitchhiked here in the '70s have taken their beads and tambourines and boogied back north. But the Conch Republic is losing more than just its slackers, aging hippies and self-styled pirates.
Teachers and firefighters, grocery clerks and bank tellers, hotel maids and falafel fryers -- all are leaving Key West, unable to pay rents and mortgages twice as high as on the mainland. At least 14% of those younger than 55 have left in the last few years, cutting into the workforce.
For five years, Bringle and her husband, a firefighter and electrician, have worked four jobs between them to keep up with a $450,000 mortgage on the tiny house they built on a mobile-home lot. Now they are divorcing and have to sell, and Bringle isn't sure where she'll land.
Much of Bringle's family has left, even those who bought their homes in the days when trailer parks far outnumbered oceanfront town houses. Despite Florida's 3% cap on annual property tax rate increases, the skyrocketing home prices in the Keys have compounded a traditionally high cost of living, with most goods trucked in over 150 miles from Miami while gas prices routinely hit record highs.
Monroe County, which stretches from this southernmost key to the unpopulated western Everglades, has lost more than 2,000 workers since the 2000 census. That's a body blow to the service-oriented economy of a county with only 75,000 residents and 2.25 million overnight visitors a year.
"We have a shrinking population -- one of the few places in Florida going in reverse," said Ed Swift, owner of the Conch Tour Trains, which thread the narrow streets of the historic Old Town.
Swift's trains are full of day-trippers from the cruise ships that have replaced the shrimp fleet at the seaport. "Whether it's the teaching profession or the hotel business, we have a critical shortage of qualified people. We have a shortage of warm bodies."
An employer of 300, Swift had to move some of his operations to St. Augustine recently because he couldn't find local workers who could repair and maintain the tour trains.
The dearth of workers has put strains on the upscale establishments patronized by the swelling ranks of the wealthy.
Pisces Restaurant serves French-Caribbean seafood in the blue-and-yellow decor evocative of Provence. Its wait staff can present lobster and crab concoctions to diners in Russian, Spanish, German and French. The cosmopolitan flourish is born of necessity rather than design: Manager Tyler Scott has to sponsor foreign workers for temporary stints of up to six months to make up for the local labor shortfall.
And it's not a solution for most Key West employers.
"Because we're high-end, we're able to attract them," he says of servers whose income from gratuities allows them to afford one-bedroom apartments, the smallest of which start at $1,600 a month. "The employers who are hurting are those like CVS and Kmart. It can take you half an hour to pay for something there, because they don't have enough workers."
Suzy Murphy, who owns An Island Oasis B&B, often has to clean the six guest rooms herself because reliable help -- any kind of help -- is hard to find.
"They have a saying here that if you show up one day, you're hired; if you show up a second day, you're the manager," she says with exasperation as she sets out the breakfast buffet on the inn's palm-shaded deck.
She points to new "condotel" developments like the three-story Westin project next door as typical of the islandwide upscaling.
Monroe County froze the number of overnight accommodations a decade ago when the Keys were designated an area of "critical concern" because of fragile mangroves, endangered manatees and protected sea grass.
That encouraged owners of traditional clapboard motels to improve their properties to earn more per unit, or replace old enclaves of funky bungalows with multi-story condos with two- and three-bedroom suites that rent for $500 or more a night.
While the high-end hotel stock grows, working-class rentals are being razed and replaced. More than 2,400 mobile homes have disappeared from the Keys since 1990.