Bleak tourism outlook

Panhandle officials say hurricane recovery won't be enough in time for summer


Jim Mitchell, president of the Marina Management Corporation, steps over debris on Sept. 19, 2004, in Pensacola from the Bahia Mar Marina, where Hurricane Ivan flattened a boat storage building, causing millions of dollars in damage.

DAVID MASSEY/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 2:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 2:50 p.m.

Hurricane Ivan has left a bleak outlook for tourism in the western Florida Panhandle where summer is the peak season.

Tourism officials from Perdido Key, on the Florida-Alabama state line, to Navarre Beach, about 25 miles east of Pensacola, estimate only 50 to 60 percent of lodgings available before Ivan struck on Sept. 16 will be repaired or replaced by the storm's anniversary date.

Even fewer rooms are available for the winter snowbird season, spring break and the beginning of the all-important summer season.

``We basically lost our snowbird season,'' said Bill Stromquist, director of the Perdido Key Chamber of Commerce.

Ivan's 15-foot storm surge and winds up to 130 mph caused more damage to hotels, condominiums and other accommodations than initially thought, property managers say.

It also has affected other businesses that depend on the tourists they attract.

Peter Clayton, co-owner of Go Fish Clothing and Jewelry Co., said he plans to wait until next year to reopen his two stores at Pensacola Beach.

``It's looking pretty grim right now,'' Clayton said.

Fewer visitors will mean a drop in tourist tax revenues in hard-hit beach areas. As a result, Kathy Newby, executive director of the Navarre Beach Chamber of Commerce has cut her tourism advertising budget, paid for through a tax on accommodations, from more than $400,000 to $100,000, for the next two years.

However, Ed Schroeder, vice president for tourism at the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, said Pensacola will need all of its $2.1 million advertising budget to benefit those hotels, restaurants and other businesses that are open.

``They are not going to want to hear that we're not going to do anything until the full product is back on line,'' Schroeder said. ``Whatever is here has to be marketed, but very, very smartly.''

Unlike beach areas, tourism tax revenues have increased in Pensacola because most accommodations survived the storm or have been repaired, and they are packed with out-of-town workers helping in recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Memorial Day weekend kicks off the summer season and thousands of holiday visitors traditionally are attracted by gay and lesbian galas organized by Johnny Chisholm.

``We're going full scale and marketing it nationwide, but there's going to be a shortage of rooms,'' Chisholm said. ``It's going to be whether (people) will stay farther out in town or just not come. We know we will be off, but we know if we skipped a year it would hard to start over.''

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