How The Ugly Grouper took advantage of slow red tide season
Business owners are hoping for a fresh start and a big boost to revenue at the turn of the new year.
A persistent red tide bloom has tainted the island’s reputation, scared off vacationers and kept tourism dollars at bay. The latest reports from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission suggests levels across the state are lower than they’ve been in months, but the financial hit has been stunning.
Longboat Key, Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Bradenton all saw double-digit percentage declines in November’s resort tax collections compared to 2017, according to the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. October was even worse. Longboat Key’s collections dropped by about 18 percent and Bradenton and Bradenton Beach dropped by about 30 percent each.
Eric Buehler, general manager of Haley’s Motel, 8102 Gulf Drive S., knows this firsthand. He recalled the exact moment when cancellations started flooding into his business that sits just a block away from the beach.
“Business has slowed down a lot. In August, it was really great and it was looking really good,” he said. “Then all of a sudden, red tide came and it stopped. We had a lot of cancellations in September.”
Reservations at the Harrington House Bed & Breakfast, 5626 Gulf Drive, have also seen a “substantial” decline, said owner Mark Davis. He explained that he’s tried to mitigate cancellations by reaching out to guests and giving them firsthand accounts of island conditions.
“The customers that come out and stay with us are people who are familiar with us, repeat guests,” Davis said. “We reach out to them to provide firsthand information, but they do their own research and know they can also call us directly.”
The FWC tests the waters near the Rod & Reel Pier every Monday, said dock master Jim Malfese. The pier saw a slight decline in business, he said, but they didn’t have too many bad days.
Red tide is caused by Karenia brevis algae that occurs naturally in the Gulf of Mexico. The bloom has been around for more than a year, but only crept into Manatee County waters at the end of July. For Sandi and Frank Kozlesky, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
The Pennsylvania couple became the landlords of a Palma Sola rental home at the end of June and struggled to fill it thanks to the scourge of red tide. Even while spending time at home 1,000 miles away, the Kozleskys heard how the bloom ravaged the area.
“We’ve got friends here and they said it really was terrible,” Sandi Kozlesky said. “I don’t know another word to describe it.”
As she lounged on Manatee Public Beach with her husband, Sandi said she could envision living in Florida full time.
“This is the attraction. You come to Florida for the beach,” she said.
‘People have their doubts’
And while the beach is Florida’s money maker, Terri Kinder, president of the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce, said visitors shouldn’t be discouraged by reports of red tide.
“I think it’s important to understand that adverse conditions are not island-wide,” she said. “If you find the bloom at the shore, go down the street. Seven miles is a long distance, and there’s a lot to do on the island.”
But folks were steadily canceling plans to do those other things, according to Diane Havelka, co-owner of Beach Bums Recreational Rentals, 427 Pine Ave. Her business, which offers daily and weekly bicycle, golf cart and kayak rentals, suffered “significant losses” as soon as the bloom made its way to the island.
“We were down 15 to 28 percent depending on the month,” said Havelka.
Beach Bums didn’t just waste that down time. The slow season meant a renewed emphasis on maintenance and repair, which kept employees busy and on the payroll. However, Havelka said she was concerned about how Anna Maria Island might be perceived in the coming months.
“We got lots of calls asking how it was out here and we were always honest. Most people found ways to enjoy the beach but the question is will the ones who canceled or rescheduled be back,” she said. “People have their doubts and you can’t blame them.”
The Ugly Grouper, 5704 Marina Drive, braced for the impact of lost business by using the past few slow months for renovations and upgrades, said operations manager Aaron Lewis. He said the business was fortunate not to be overcome by the smell of dead fish, but others weren’t so lucky.
At the Bridge Tender Inn & Dockside Bar, 135 Bridge St., red tide’s impact was just as bad as anywhere else, said general manager Sue Shinka. A delightful summer quickly turned into a nightmare, she said.
“We actually did a bit to prevent being affected by red tide. We had nets in the water to stop dead fish from coming around, we burned wood chips, but once it started, we died. We completely died,” Shinka said. “There were days I didn’t even open. We just bled money.”
The month of August is when Bridge Tender saw a massive decline in business. Revenue dropped at least 30 percent that month and September wasn’t much better, according to Shinka.
Shinka described the timing of red tide’s assault on the island as both a blessing and a curse. While it ate away at business during the end of what would have been a profitable summer, its extended duration hasn’t hurt business too much in what is already known as the slowest time of the year.
“It’s definitely not as bad as it could be. The first two weeks of December always suck. This is why you save your money all year,” Shinka said.
A wave of resources
One of the ways Shinka coped with red tide was by using every resource she could possibly find. County officials say she wasn’t the only one. Manatee’s Redevelopment and Economic Opportunity department hit the pavement with business walks to inform owners about loans and assistance they could apply for.
Karen Stewart, a county economic development official, said more than 240 businesses were contacted and 150 were served at their business recovery center. Local businesses have been granted about $1.25 million in assistance, with many applications still pending.
Kinder said the AMI Chamber participated in those walks, but they also took it a step further. The organization raised money to assist employees who rely on the tourism industry pay their bills in a time of need.
“We were made aware that some of these workers were negatively impacted, as well,” Kinder said. “We decided to donate proceeds from Bayfest toward donations to help them out.”
Nearly 400 people signed up to receive a portion of the $19,000 that was raised from Bayfest, local businesses and individual donations, said Kinder. That was enough for each person to receive a $50 check.
“We know it’s not a lot, but we hope that amount was enough to put food on their tables or gas in their tanks.”
Predicting the future
This stubborn bout of red tide, which has lingered along Florida water for over a year, is the worst Amanda Foster, store manager of Ginny’s and Jane E’s Cafe and Gift Shop, 9807 Gulf Drive, has ever seen. She said inside seating and strong showings from residents are what kept the Anna Maria business afloat.
“We’re very lucky and have great local support. It happened in the slow season when people aren’t here anyway, but we’re grateful for the folks that kept us rolling through this thing,” Foster said.
Foster said the chief concern among her customers was the health risks associated with the algae bloom. Kinder said the chamber often hears from concerned vacationers, residents and business owners who want to know when the algae bloom will finally dissipate, but experts say it’s impossible to guess.
“High season isn’t many months off and they’re asking us to predict the future,” said Kinder. “Unfortunately, we can’t.”
The combination of red tide and the slow season certainly didn’t do the island’s tourism industry any favors, but owners are looking forward to the early 2019 months that could turn things around. Davis and Buehler both said their February bookings already indicate significant growth.
Likewise, Foster said she’s expecting an uptick in business right before Christmas.
“Right now, I’m doing 20 percent of what I’ll be doing on Christmas Eve,” Foster predicted. “It always happens that way, and from there, it’ll stay like that for four months.”
As red tide levels continue to decline, the tourists will surely return, Kinder predicted. And when they do, island businesses will be ready to make their paradise vacation dreams come true.
“This is still the place to come and our businesses are holding strong,” Kinder said.