Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto and other top ranking officials made a trip to Estero Island Thursday to check out the beachfront, dip their toes in the Gulf and listen to comments from Beach hospitality members about the economic impact suffered since high flow regulatory freshwater releases were discharged from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River and consequently along Southwest Florida beachfronts and saltwater estuaries.
After the brief beachfront visit, Benacquisto was joined by State Representative Ray Rodriguez along with Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker, Beach Mayor Alan Mandel and Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane at the head of the round table inside Pink Shell Beach Resort's Lido Ballroom. This trip came after she visited Sanibel and before she attended an evening town hall meeting on the subject at the Lee County Emergency Operations Center.
Words such as "damage," "reputation," "future" and "trickle down effect" were bounced around the room as roughly one dozen Beach business representatives offered comments about how the state of the Gulf and Back Bay has affected their livelihoods. While Lake O flows have eased, the consequences of the action have escalated.
The round table discussion at Pink Shell Beach Resort on Estero Island involved Beach hospitality industry leaders and officials such as Sanibel mayor Kevin Ruane, State Representative Ray Rodriguez, Beach Mayor Alan Mandel, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto and Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker (l to r) at the head of the table.
"Every comment that you make is critically valuable to us. We will underscore everyone's testimony to set the stage for next season," said Benacquisto. "With your help, we want to make sure the message is right and what it should be."
While Rodriguez acknowledged that "clear water is critical for a tourism-based economy," Ruane echoed that a solution will possibly not happened before the season is over.
"The key thing is we are heightening the issue to more than just an environmental impact," said Ruane. "Traditionally, that is how the story has been written. That's important, but now we are bringing in the economical impact. The data we collect is extremely valuable and will help us as we move forward."
Kiker, a Beach resident and business owner, stated he will bring comments forward to the County Commission.
"This is really, really important to all of us," he said.
Businesses, such as Pink Shell, have disseminated comment cards to hear from their guests. Social media outlets have compounded the problem.
"The water quality issue has been going on for a long time. Even though it is not as bad as compared to what it was weeks ago, the damage to the hospitality industry has been done," said Pink Shell Marketing Director Ellis Etter. He stated comments have ranged from "very disappointed" to "we will never come back to Southwest Florida again."
SOB owner Bill Freeman said: "My biggest concern is the future. People come down here for the beach. The impact it will have over the long run is what scares me. BP paid people for their mistake. Is the state of Florida going to compensate us for what we are going to lose?"
There have been reported hotel/resort cancellations due to the darker, tainted Gulf water. Many have shied away from dipping into it out of fear of not knowing what you cannot see.
Best Western Plus Beach Resort manager Jeff Malbon stated it will be difficult to put a figure on his accommodation's losses since the incident. He hears comments about people not wanting to swim in the Gulf.
Krusty Pete co-owner Dave Anderson mentioned the trickle down effect on his retail/wholesale business.
"A lot of our customers are the large restaurants and hotels. If they don't have the guests, they don't buy product from us," he said. "(Unlike BP), this is real. People come down, and they see the water. This is something we are going to have for a number of years. We need a short-term fix."
Nervous Nellies' Steve DeAngelis talked about implementing more preemptive water releases on Lake O.
"You won't have the volume in an emergency like we had if you release more water ahead of time," he said.
While Fish Tale Marina owner Al Durrett encouraged all officials not to give up in finding solutions, Charley's Boat House Grill manager Rob McKenney stated he took his family over to the west coast of Florida to enjoy the clean water after a bad experience on a Gulf beach. He feared local residents are doing the same.
DiamondHead Beach Resort Neil Hopgood talked about invested money into the European market during the summer months. He would like to know more about marketing ploys to help alleviate future cancellations. Beach Mayor Alan Mandel, the meeting facilitator, has made pleas to that end.
"They need to have a large marketing fund, giving the comments we are hearing at resorts and hotels to counter what has happened down here," he said earlier.
FMB Chamber President Bud Nocera relayed survey answers from Beach businesses as a whole and questioned the ability of those who have suffered from water quality issues.
"This is a beach of small businesses. This is a beach of people that cannot take a prolonged downturn in our tourism economy," he said. "We need to seek the short-term and the long-term solutions so that we can ensure our visitors that there is going to be pristine water in our Gulf, bays and estuaries."
Both Kiker and Ruane assured all in the room that this problem will pass. Kiker listed Hurricane Charley, red drift algae and the BP oil spill perception problem that Beach residents and businesses have had to recover from.
"It's in these kinds of situations where we can get information from you, focus in on and then address it, like we have done with the rest of them as we continue to be resilient," Kiker said.
"We have echoed everyone's concerns," added Ruane. "We will bounce back."
An analysis review concerning east versus west water releases will be revisited in the future. Ruane did point out the west flow is a longer run with more time to filter out pollutants. For now, a team effort is needed on both sides of the state.
"The experience of coming here is invaluable," said Benacquisto. "We want the water to return to its crystal blue status as quickly as it can. To be here first hand, really reinforces the need to move expeditiously. I hope you all know that we care and how committed we are to be working as part of your team. There is a lot of positive movement happening right now."