Day 2 on Florida Gulf Coast: Hope Returns, Challenges Remain
Around the State
But as Scott strolled and dined Wednesday, challenges facing the region remain, as individuals and businesses battle over claims – many of which remain unpaid – for lost income, and local governments and the state play a chess game of sorts to recoup millions lost in local taxes.
Still, signs of life are returning to the region, say business owners, economic developers and local officials who hope that an additional $30 million in market money from BP, announced earlier this month, will help to bring new visitors to the region and coax back those who used to vacation here, but who last summer went somewhere else and liked the new spot.
“We know there are a lot of people who are still suffering and having difficult times, but we are certainly optimistic with all the signs we’re seeing right now,” said Dawn Moliterno, chairwoman of the Northwest Florida Tourism Council, a seven-county group that will split the $30 million in BP advertising funds.
Business was picking up in the region in April 2010 from the recession of the last few years. A new regional airport had just opened and merchants were seeing heavy advanced bookings.
That changed April 20 with the explosion and fire aboard the Transocean-run rig that killed 11 and set off a chain of events that would shut down the region’s 2010 tourist season.
For 87 days, oil spewed from a wellhead more than a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf, a disaster televised 24/7 that sent nervous tourists scurrying elsewhere to spend their vacation – forsaking even places where oil was never even seen.
Florida’s beach towns, which largely escaped the actual tar and oil, were quieted by an equally paralyzing phenomenon -- the public perception that their beaches were soiled. The Florida Panhandle coastal towns were also hurt by the perception that Gulf seafood was inedible.
One year later businesses are still trying to pick up the pieces, but there is burgeoning hope, said Pat Lamar, owner of The Canoe Shop in Panama City. Despite being convinced he will never be “made whole” by the Gulf Coast Claims Facility, the Ken Feinberg-led effort to distribute $20 billion in BP cash, Lamar said he and other business owners have had to press on or go under.
“Nobody has mentioned the oil spill in quite a while,” said Lamar. “People are past it. You have to, right? You’ve got to move on.”
On Wednesday, the governor tried to do just that by completing a two-day tour of Panhandle beach communities, stopping in the resort cities of Destin and Pensacola Beach in an effort to boost the state’s beaches and erase an image of oil soaked surf.
“The positive is, if you talked to people, bookings are up and our beaches are spotless,” Scott said in Destin. “The fishing is good and the seafood tastes great. We were on a trajectory last year before the oil spill. We want to get back to that point.”
Local tourism officials appear to back Scott up. Moliterno said bookings in the Destin area are up and so are the prices paid for the rooms, a marked change from last year when reservations tumbled and hotels slashed prices and added incentives to lure customers in.
Some hoteliers have settled claims with Feinberg, who has so far paid out $3.8 billion, including $1.5 billion to Florida businesses and individuals. Many small-business owners, though, say they’re still waiting for Feinberg to pay up.
Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson, who closed his real estate business because he could not collect a claim, said Feinberg’s claims process has not provided the kind of relief envisioned when the agency was formed. Hardest hit have been small businesses that did not keep elaborate books or couldn’t afford a stable of attorneys to force Feinberg’s hand.
“Many of our businesses will never get paid, I’m convinced of that,” Robinson said. “I just hope enough of them can be.”
Likewise Tom Rice, owner of the Lucky Snapper Restaurant in Destin – visited Wednesday by Scott -- has yet to be paid on a claim filed with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who just want closure on 2010,” Rice said. “Right now, they don’t know whether to invest, hold steady or liquidate because they don’t know what (Feinberg) is going to do with their claim. They’re just waiting for an answer.“
Counties have been more successful. Earlier this week, Bay County commissioners signed off on a $2.6 million settlement with BP to pay for lost tax revenue, which local officials said was basically what they asked for. Escambia County got $1.9 million through the same process, which is handled directly through BP.
“We’re doing all right,” said Dan Rowe, president and CEO of the Bay County Tourism Development Council. “With the dollars we’ve received from BP for marketing, we’ll continue efforts to bring those visitors back.”
While the beaches Wednesday were spotless, environmental issues loom.
Repeated tests show the Gulf is safe for swimming and its seafood is safe to eat. But some problems remain. Taylor “Chip” Kirschenfeld, Escambia County’s senior scientist and division manager for water quality, says hundreds of tar mats remain submerged just offshore. Until the patches, some as large as football fields, are removed, tar balls will continue to roll up on Panhandle shores when kicked up by storms. Local officials have been pushing for the company to finance the next round of cleanup and are waiting for a response.
“BP says they want to make (the beaches) the way they were before the spill,” Kirschenfeld said. “We’re fine with that. The oil was not there before the spill, so it should not be there after the spill.”
As waves crashed ashore behind the newly opened Holiday Inn resort in Pensacola Beach on the one-year anniversary, local and state officials said those businesses that weathered the 2010 storm are looking ahead and have more than a fighting chance to survive.
“The visitors are coming back,” said Chris Thompson, president and CEO of VisitFlorida, the state’s marketing arm. “So we think 2011’s going to be a banner year."