FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Hurricane Ian has come and gone, but it could still deal lasting blows to the local economy and hit small businesses that rely heavily on tourists and seasonal residents.
Scenes of destruction in Southwest Florida will keep many winter tourists and snowbirds away, leaving local residents tasked with rebuilding for months or more, said Michael Maguire, manager of a group of family-owned restaurants including a couple on hard-hit Fort Myers Beach.
“ Even before the storm, there were mixed economic signs for Fort Myers and the rest of Lee County.”
“It’s not going to be the same,” Maguire said as he stood in front of Pinchers seafood restaurant in Fort Myers’ Fisherman’s Wharf. “It can take months, it can take years. We do not know it. The people who live in the area won’t be in shape to go out to restaurants.”
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Wild gusts tore off roofs, collapsed walls and ripped buildings from their foundations. Flooding — including tidal waves more than a dozen feet — swamped shops, bars and restaurants. Busy with tourists, Fisherman’s Wharf turned into a dusty and unreal scene, with boats capsizing far from their usual moorings. The rancid smell of hardened dirt still hangs in the air.
As winter approaches, business would have picked up. Bars, restaurants, and the many corner shops along San Carlos Boulevard, the thoroughfare to Fort Myers Beach, usually began to fill up. The start of the snow crab season in mid-October would usher in more buoyant business.
Tourists boost the region’s economy in the winter, as do snowbirds with vacation homes to escape the cold in the upper Midwest, Northeast and Canada. “That’s where our business comes from,” Maguire said.
Even before the storm, there were mixed economic signs for Fort Myers and the rest of Lee County, where US Census Bureau figures show more than 60% of businesses have fewer than five employees.
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reported that unemployment in the region has continued to fall since last summer as the economy recovered from COVID-19 — with the largest growth in the leisure and hospitality industries. In Fort Myers, the sector added 2,700 jobs in May compared to the same month last year.
However, airport passenger numbers in Southwest Florida had already fallen by July 2022, down 13% from a year earlier, according to an economic study of the region by Florida Gulf Coast University. Tourist tax revenue fell 2% in the region, while Lee County fell 4%. The study partially blames inflation for this downturn.
With a family to support, including two small children, fisherman Jake Luke can’t afford to be unemployed.
“Right now we’re selling stuff, selling stuff we don’t need. I do odd jobs — $50 here, $100 hundred there,” he said. “We’re about eight days behind on the rent and I’ve been thinking about calling the family about a loan.”
It was still the off-season when the hurricane hit, but the busy times for seafood restaurants and fishing trips were just around the corner. “When the season comes I would work five or six days a week – but it doesn’t look like we’re going to have a season this year. That means I’m losing $50,000 a year in revenue.
Some business owners told Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a roundtable discussion Wednesday that if they had access to generators and equipment to replace the parts damaged by flooding, they could get their businesses up and running again within weeks. Robbie Roepstorff, president of local Edison National Bank, said small businesses need access to cash so they can do their payroll or their workers would move elsewhere.
The Republican governor warned recovery efforts would face the challenge of a global supply chain crisis, but was optimistic obstacles could be overcome. Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency, plans to run ads touting the recovery effort, he said.
“I think people will want to come,” DeSantis said. “Not today, but in the not too distant future.”
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The population of Lee County is nearly 788,000 people. It’s hard to say how much snowbirds boost populations. But a surrogate measure — gross retail sales — historically jumps nearly a third at the peak of the season in January compared to the dog days of late summer.
But many snowbirds are unlikely to return this year because their vacation homes have been damaged or because facilities like shops and restaurants have yet to fully recover.
James Kratzke, who has a vacation home on Fort Myers Beach, said the water had almost reached its ceiling. Relatives were out to assess the damage. He was home in Wisconsin when the storm hit and doesn’t know when he’ll be back.
Squads have been demolishing buildings all over the area that are teetering on foundations. Homeowners tried to salvage what they could from their sodden homes – racing against time, mold and mildew.
There was nothing some business owners could do, their livelihoods torn apart, including many restaurants. GoFundMe campaigns have sprung up to help restaurant workers who have lost their jobs.
“Business here is gone, but we will rebuild elsewhere,” said Ashley Galassi, a bartender at Tina’s, a Fisherman’s Wharf pub. “It will probably all be torn down, I’m sure. There is not much left of the foundation.”
Galassi said she believes the tourists “won’t be coming back anytime soon” because “it’s total destruction all around us.” But she is certain that the community will be rebuilt.
“We will all stick together,” Galassi said. “That’s what it’s about.”