ENGLEWOOD — When you call your favorite Punta Gorda restaurant at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday and there’s a 90-minute wait for seating, you know it’s season.
And, so far, all indications are it will be a good tourism season in Southwest Florida with Manasota Key business owners reporting a decided uptick, Realtors saying condos are nearly filled up and tourism officials sporting slight smiles.
For local business owners, red tide is mostly a bad memory as winter visitors have only heard how bad things were this past summer. The latest maps from the state show it’s not considered present in Charlotte and Sarasota counties.
“Right now, we’ve been very busy,” said Rocket Atamanchuk, owner of the Lock ‘N Key and SandBar Tiki & Grille. He credited some of the added business at the Lock ‘N Key to its remodeling, completed in early November, but the SandBar is also enjoying a good start to the season.
Atamanchuk and other Manasota Key business owners said the peak of the winter season hits them in February into April, when schools let out for spring breaks.
That’s also when Realtors expect peak occupancy at seasonal rentals — which are normal, if not above normal right now in Charlotte County.
“We have a couple hundred condos and rentals and have not experienced any decline in winter residents,” said Linda Lipstein, co-owner of Manasota Key Realty with husband David. “The weather up north is bad and it’s good here. February and March will really tell us more about the numbers.”
Barefoot Trader tourist shop and Beach Company beachwear owner Toby Dellbridge said, “Our Christmas was warm, so we had a nice Christmas with the snowbirds’ guests. The snowbirds aren’t really our customers; it’s their guests.”
The good news, Delbridge said, Manasota Key is getting back to normal. The Barefoot Trader has been in business for more than 20 years on the Key. Delbridge took it over from his aunts.
Englewood snowbirds are spilling over onto West Dearborn Street, too. Lee Perron, manager of the Thursday Englewood Farmers Market, expected the crowd to exceed 7,000 the last week in January. Normally, the farmers market wouldn’t see that many people until February, Perron said.
What Delbridge and other business owners shied from saying is “red tide.” The toxic algae caused many businesses dependent upon tourism to lose much of their summer business and sink into the red ink.
“The summer was certainly a test,” Delbridge said.
All summer and into the fall, the intensity and prevalence of the toxic red tide algae clenched the throats of coastal communities on the Gulf from Pinellas south to Collier County. Dead fish from goliath groupers to pinfish, sea turtles, marine mammals and other marine life washed up daily along local beaches. Airborne toxins aggravated respiratory and other ailments in humans.
“Whether we are recovering from the red tide disaster, the answer is a cautious yes,” said Jennifer Huber, public relations manager for the Punta Gorda/Englewood Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau.
“Looking at tourist development tax collections from November, we are up over November 2017,” Huber said.
The bureau reported it collected more than $196,000 in November 2018, a nearly 7-percent increase over the more than $189,000 collected in November 2017. Charlotte County saw an increase in tourist tax collections in December compared to 2017, rising to $323,076 in December 2018 from $316,367 in December 2017.
Tourist taxes are an additional 5-percent sales tax visitors pay in Charlotte County for hotel and other short-term rentals less than six months. The county commits the first 3 percent of what’s collected for promotion and marketing. The remaining 2 percent helps the county to pay off the bond debt service for the renovations at the Charlotte Sports Park, the Spring Training home of the Tampa Bay Rays and summer home of the minor league Charlotte Stone Crabs baseball teams.
Charlotte County did see a 10 percent drop in its occupancy rate in December 2018, but that’s due to new hotel rooms coming online, Huber said. The Holiday Inn Express on Jones Loop Road added 94 new rooms and the Springhill Suites in downtown Punta Gorda added another 104 rooms. Charlotte now has 1,800 hotel rooms available to tourists and other visitors.
With modest increases in visitors and tourist taxes in Sarasota County when its 2018 fiscal year ended in September, that’s not the story now.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing decreases when looking year-over-year — note this is with a 12 percent increase in hotel rooms and the red-tide conditions,” Visit Sarasota spokesperson Britney Guertin said. “Also, in a recent survey, 82 percent of hotel managers in Sarasota County are expecting demand to drop from December to February.”
However, large-scale events, like the Englewood Beach Waterfest powerboat racing in November, are credited with giving Charlotte County a big boost in its tourist dollars. Waterfest alone reportedly generated 6,930 room nights in local hotel and other accommodations.
Sean Doherty, interim director of the Charlotte Harbor Visitors and Convention Bureau, says he is optimistic as the season gets going.
“All we have so far is anecdotal information from our lodging partners and best I can say is the season is looking strong — February and March especially. It may not be on par with previous years, but we won’t know until later.
“What is encouraging from things I hear is they feel better.”
Doherty is concerned red tide could return at any time, though.
“Red tide so unpredictable,” he said. “We went two weeks and no red tide then (we) saw some mild concentrations in the Englewood area. Hopefully the next report will show none,” he said last month prior to it dissipating.
Huber was hesitant to predict what the rest of the season — which typically runs through mid-April — will bring.
“I wish we had a crystal ball to forecast the upcoming season,” she said. “Winter storms up North definitely help. I can say there is optimism in the air, yet we are keeping a close eye on red tide.”
John Hackworth contributed to this report.