Key West, Florida Pritam Singh's Strange Career

An eccentric developer brings good taste to a tacky island

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The odd thing is that he never stopped being a Sikh, and he remains full of admiration for the social reformers who founded the religion: "These guys were, like, wacko. They just appeared out of nowhere and were talking about justice and equality. Treat women equally, serve the poor, defend your rights. It fits the social and revolutionary agenda of the American republic to a tee." He shrugs. "Except that we wear beards and turbans."

Singh can be disarmingly frank about his failings: he has dealt with the problem of homelessness in Key West by putting up gates to close off his streets at night. His complex includes more affordable housing than required, but up to half may go to friends and vacationers, rather than to year-round residents.

He is most ardent about environmental issues, having become a rehabber at least partly because he believes it is wrong to build on open land. An aide informs him that Greenpeace will be tying up at his dock on Thursday morning. "That oughta impress the Japanese guys," he jokes, referring to a group of financiers arriving the same day with the prospect of a $100 million loan. He dreads the idea of having lived in a period of ecological collapse and done nothing but good deals.

He also dreads power, which he admits is what he enjoys most about being a developer. "I read the papers and I think, 'I could do that deal. Grrrrr.' " He makes a low self-mocking growl. "I could make $50 million on that deal." The fingers of both hands wriggle in acquisitive frenzy. Sheer insatiability has convinced him that he must give up the business after Key West. "I'm successful only if I can walk away from it and deal with who I really am." He aims to retreat to his sprawling farm in Vermont, where he has built a private Stonehenge, a Jeffersonian library in the middle of the woods, a Japanese teahouse. Cross-cultural follies.

Singh's efforts have generally gone down well among the blithe spirits of Key West. Without Singh, the Truman Annex might have become "Meldorado," a pirate theme park. But if islanders appreciate having a developer as sensitive as Pritam Singh, they are also worried that he is exerting a more profound influence on the island, as an apostle of good taste in a place long known for exuberant tackiness.

Key West has begun cracking down on noise, street vendors, store windows filled with obscene T shirts. Singh acknowledges his power to influence this trend: he will in time be paying 25% of the island's tax revenues. Before the recent election, two of the five city commissioners were, by amazing coincidence, slated to have shops in his coveted retail space. But he argues that the city would be adjusting its image, growing up, even without him.

It's possible to grow up, he suggests, without becoming dull. Among other anarchic touches, he plans to rent office space in his complex to environmental groups that "will drive other developers crazy." He is restoring the Little White House to its tacky Truman-era splendor, spending $15,000 just to repair the Sears, Roebuck fluorescent lights on the porch. Presidential bad taste doesn't trouble him, in part because he has income projections for his planned Truman museum. "The Little White House is a little gold mine," he says. But he also claims he does not mean to make Key West precious and yuppified.

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