Panhandle towns finally noticing signs of recovery

Miami HeraldJune 6, 2011 

PENSACOLA -- ATVs still rumble across the eight-mile stretch of Pensacola Beach each morning, driven by workers looking for tar balls.

One year after crude from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion reached Florida’s shores, cleanup crews are still unearthing the sticky, hardened bits of oil.

“They’re about the size of your fingernail,” said Buck Lee, a lifelong Pensacola native and executive director of the Santa Rosa Island Authority, which oversees beach projects.

While the oil rig exploded on April 20, 2010, it wasn’t until June 4 of the same year that tar patties made landfall on Pensacola. The plumes of oil sheen slowly drifted across nearly 200 miles of the Panhandle’s beaches -- from quaint beach towns of Watercolor and Seaside in Walton County to the spring break metropolis of Panama City Beach.

Though much of the goop has been skimmed from the water and plucked from the sand, the region is still paying the price of one of the nation’s most devastating oil spills.

Workers and mechanical sifting machines continue to remove unsightly tarball specks from the Panhandle’s pristine beaches, many business owners are still fighting to recoup lost profits from BP and the future impact on the rest of the economy and environment may take years to truly learn.

For now, there’s some positive news: Visitors are returning to the Panhandle beaches in record numbers and spending at hotels and storefronts that were hurting for cash last summer.

“What a year it’s been,” said Lee, who spent the last year in countless conference calls and meetings with BP and federal officials. “Its been terrible, but finally things are finally looking up.”

At the Paradise Inn, a quaint one-story hotel on Pensacola Beach, rooms have been selling out since Memorial Day Weekend.

“We’re kicking butt and taking names later,” said Kris Hedlund, a front desk clerk at the inn that boasts of having “old Florida charm.”

Last summer, the phones hardly rang at the 56-room hotel. This year, rooms are being sold out three to four weeks in advance, Hedlund said.

Lee, with the Santa Rosa Island Authority, which is funded through hotel and sales taxes on the beach, said that sales during the spring break season of March, April and May were up anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent compared to the same period in 2009.

“We knew once the beach was clean, and people knew the Gulf was safe, the people would come back, and they sure did,” Lee said, noting that based on toll receipts, 10,000 more vehicles entered Pensacola Beach for the Memorial Day weekend than last year.

While Visit Florida, the state’s tourism agency, has not pegged an exact dollar figure for losses related to the spill, last summer many Panhandle hotels and restaurants reporting seeing sales down by 50 percent in the peak summer months.

“It’s very hard to have a solid statistical number,” said Carol Dover, chief executive of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. “The bed tax numbers may show that we weren’t down as much as we said, but that doesn’t take into account the fact that so many BP workers stayed in the Panhandle, and weren’t paying full prices at the hotel, or weren’t shopping at the souvenir shops, or eating out at the restaurants or renting watercrafts.”

BP gave the state $25 million to fund an “ Our Coast is Clear” advertising campaign. The money was used for digital billboards and TV commercials in key markets like Atlanta and New York. But the state has since changed gears on its advertising approach.

“As the calendar year turned, we put the oil spill to bed,” said Chris Thompson, CEO of VISIT FLORIDA. “As far as marketing the state, we’re getting back to our regular advertising. The Florida brand is a strong brand, it’s very resilient. Once we get them here, they will come back.”

Out on the Gulf Coast’s emerald waters, state scientists and university researchers scoop up containers of sea water on a weekly basis, testing for signs of oil residue. The results have mostly yielded clean water for the past six months -- nothing as dire as June and July of last year, when some Panhandle counties were forced to post signs at beach entrances warning visitors to stay out of the oil-contaminated water.

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