“This island is like a gateway to the Everglades,” Esther Alonso-Luft says of Virginia Key, a strand of sand and mangrove on the watery edge of Miami, a metropolis of six million, glittering on the far side of the causeway.
“We open these opportunities for the community—for people who live in the city and have never experienced wilderness,” says Alonso-Luft, owner of Virginia Key Outdoor Center in Miami, Florida. That’s right—in Miami. The largely undeveloped island lies within the city limits, just north of Key Biscayne.
With nearly 900 acres of parklands and lagoons (plus a water-treatment plant), Virginia Key is an urban wildland hiding in plain sight. Visitors to the outdoor center regularly tell Alonso-Luft they didn’t even know Virginia Key existed, despite its rich history and proximity to city neighborhoods. The island is barely a mile from downtown, and serviced by a bus line—the 102 to be precise. It is also home to Historic Virginia Key Beach, which during the mid-1940s was established as the first beach for Black residents of Miami-Dade County during the Jim Crow era.
Alonso-Luft opened her first business, The Paddle House, at Historic Virginia Key Beach in 2010. Five years later, she opened the Virginia Key Outdoor Center on the island’s northeast end, building on the site of an infamous dive bar that would have made Hemingway blush, if the stories are true. The businesses serve an increasing number of winter visitors and nurture a growing core of outdoor enthusiasts in the local community.
Alonso-Luft says one of the most effective ways she’s been able to reach new audiences—including those who have traditionally been underserved in paddlesports and the outdoors—is by partnering with organizations in the city that have similar goals. She brings the missing pieces only a paddling outfitter can: boats, and a place to paddle.
“Our partners, they already have these relationships in the community,” Alonso-Luft says. “They reach out to us for support, and we’ll provide them with equipment at no cost. Now I’m putting my services in front of a whole new group of people.”
Virginia Key Outdoor Center also hosts weeklong summer programs providing local youth opportunities to participate in all the outfitters activities on the island including stand up paddleboarding, kayaking, and even mountain biking. The program charges tuition to those who can afford to pay, and offers scholarships to families who can’t. Virginia Key Outdoor Center advertises both the summer camps and the scholarships, but what largely brings youth to the program is word-of-mouth between friends from Miami and neighboring urban areas. “We have a bunch of kids who come out from Miami Beach for the summer program because they have nothing like it,” Alonso-Luft of the narrow island city to her north, which has a population density on par with Philadelpiha.
“The scholarship is an opportunity to offer kids in the city the program who couldn’t otherwise afford it,” she adds. “We found going through the kids has also been a really positive experience because it brings the parents out. So we may be taking a cut on the registration, but it comes back in other events.”
This is an important factor. As a business, the goal for a commercial outfitter like Virginia Key Outdoor Center is ultimately to profit, grow, and foster continued relationships with customers. In expanding her audience in Miami, Alonso-Luft says what she puts into the community is ultimately an investment in her business.
“If I am going to be paying money to Google and whoever else I’m doing my marketing through—hundreds of dollars a month just to get my name out there—it would be worth it for me to do it with my community, to get my community out there.”
She says the key to broadening participation is not offering free paddling, but providing an experienceengaging new participants and fosters a lasting connection to the sport. Alonso-Luft believes in order to make that connection, both her business and the participants have to be invested in the experience. Whether this means a volunteer exchange, a monetary commitment or something personally meaningful, both business and participants have to feel its value.
A key to engagement is to make Virginia Key Outdoor Center a welcoming place for all, which Alonso-Luft says starts with her staff, who reflect the diversity of a great American city. “We come in all shapes, colors, and orientations. We are what we are as people who love the outdoors, and enjoy what we do, and share it. I think that makes a difference. My staff makes a difference.”
Alonso-Luft sees Virginia Key as invaluable to the community, a driving force in her determination to grow her Outdoor Center and the eclectic gathering of paddlers and urban adventure-seekers who use it. The island serves as a gateway connecting Miami’s urban residents to the coastal wilderness just 15 minutes from downtown,” she says. “We’ve become the last vestiges of primitive existence in an urban area. Humans are a part of the wilderness equation, we just forgot our role.”
The Virginia Key Outdoor Center helps people re-discover—or discover for the first time—this connection. “We go out there and you see the financial and legal district of Brickell, downtown, the residential area of Coconut Grove. Then you see the old mangrove islands, and coral islands that are part of Virginia Key, then turn back to the lagoon where we are. You can see this all sitting in one spot. This is the epicenter. This is where everything comes together.”
This article was first published in the 2022 issue of Paddling Business. Inside you’ll find the year’s hottest gear for canoeing, kayaking, whitewater and paddleboarding. Plus: Industry leaders on surviving COVID, the dirty little secret of pro deals, brand consolidation and more. READ IT NOW »
PHOTO: COURTESY VIRGINIA KEY OUTDOOR CENTER