BRADENTON -- Tourism officials fear the growing number of investors and underwater homeowners using residential property as low-cost vacation rentals has changed the culture of Anna Maria Island.
Members of the Manatee County Tourist Development Council say the island’s laid-back atmosphere has been threatened by the shabby vacation rentals thrown up in residential sectors -- bringing flocks of party-first visitors to beaches that built their reputation as a quiet destination for families.
But because no laws are technically being broken, officials from the island cities told the board at its meeting Monday in the Manatee County Commission Chambers they aren’t quite sure what to do.
The trend now has visitors and permanent residents at odds over the island’s future, as tourism officials scramble to preserve its image.
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“When you go to Hawaii, sometimes it feels like the locals don’t want you there,” said Holmes Beach City Commissioner David Zaccagnino. “I don’t want that to be Anna Maria Island, but I’m starting to sense some of it ... There’s a problem, and we need to work from all different angles to get it resolved.”
The historic housing bust has brought more out-of-state investors to Anna Maria Island who are looking to turn a buck by transforming a foreclosed duplex into a mini hotel.
The developers will cram as many rooms as they can in the homes, and rent them out to groups who typically can’t afford the island’s traditional resorts.
Many Anna Maria homeowners who owe more than their property is worth now are following suit -- recovering from an unaffordable mortgage by renting out the rooms and buying a new home in Bradenton to live, said Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Most don’t file for a business tax receipt, also allowing them to skate on the tourist development taxes all hotels are required to pay.
Falcione and County Administrator Ed Hunzeker are scheduled to meet with officials from each of the island cities Thursday to vet a solution.
“Over the last couple of years, a lot of folks have taken advantage of the situation,” said Ed Chiles, a restaurateur on the island. “If they did that in my neighborhood, I would be mad too. We don’t want to be South Beach; we don’t want to be Fort Lauderdale.”
Chiles said the island’s new “frat” crowds will scare away other longtime visitors, which could ultimately tarnish its reputation.
The strife has caught the eye of even the New York Post, which ran a small blurb last month about the visitor-resident tension.
It also is slowly shrinking the island’s permanent population, which has dropped about 20 percent in the last decade, census records show. Officials fear as that ratio of visitors grows larger, the quaint island will become more commercialized.
Holmes Beach commissioners failed to advance a moratorium on new building sought to provide a fix. The Tourist Development Council on Monday urged the city to reconsider.
A longer-term solution likely would require a change to the comprehensive plan, members agreed.
“What we’re talking about here is the image,” County Commissioner and TDC Chair Carol Whitmore said.
“This is not what we want, and we have to work with the cities to stop what’s going on.”