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Fading summer is lost cause for Gulf businesses

With just a few weeks left before school starts, and many tourists having already made other plans, Gulf business owners say the remaining time before Labor Day will largely do nothing to keep them afloat.
With just a few weeks left before school starts, and many tourists having already made other plans, Gulf business owners say the remaining time before Labor Day will largely do nothing to keep them afloat. Dave Martin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A stack of business cards for tourists sits on a countertop beside the cash register at Zeke's Marina on the Alabama shore. Beside it sits another stack, advertising mental health counseling for locals.

It's been a depressing summer for business owners along the coasts of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. Unlike Louisiana, which has fishing, and Mississippi, which has gambling, resort towns on this stretch of sugar-white sand rely largely on one industry: tourism.

The oil well that blew on April 20 off Louisiana and sullied the season is now capped, at least temporarily, and has been pumped with drilling mud to stem the flow. But with just a few weeks left before school starts, and many tourists having already made other plans, business owners say the remaining time before Labor Day will largely do nothing to keep them afloat.

Even now, with the beaches relatively clean and the water clear, business is a bust as many tourists stay away, having heard about soiled beaches or fearing the unknown. Oil or no oil, the summer is shot, and everyone from hotel managers to souvenir shop owners and restaurateurs is looking to BP Plc to help keep their doors opens, their employees paid and their livelihoods intact until next summer.

At the Paradise Inn Motel on the main drag in Pensacola Beach, Fla., where a bright yellow sun on the sign advertises its bayside bar and grill, manager Dana Powell said the remaining few weeks of the peak season won't even be a Band-Aid to the bottom line. The inn is usually booked full through the summer but is now down about 50 percent.

Powell wondered whether she would even have a job this winter.

"I don't ask that question because I don't want to know," she said, shaking her head. "Anxiety, stress. People have been pretty miserable around here. It's just been depressing."

Given up saving summer
About 25 miles east in Perdido Key, Fla., souvenir shop owner Wayne Cavalier is exhausted. He has given up on saving summer and now spends most of his days plowing through paperwork for his BP claims.

"There's just not enough business left to save us," he said. "Without BP, we're done."

Cavalier runs two souvenir shops along the coast road, selling beach towels, T-shirts, sandals, rafts, shells, jewelry and other fare typical of tourist traps. He speaks with grief in his voice, pausing occasionally to sigh.

"I'm in jeopardy of closing both of them down, and just losing them," he said. "All of this is coming down on me, man. We're just trying to make a living."

Tony Kennon, mayor of Orange Beach, agreed that BP will have to come through on claims for many of his constituents to stay afloat.

"Summer's gone, and there was nowhere near enough cash generated for our businesses to make it through the off-season," Kennon said. "We're going to do the best we possibly can with the remaining weeks, but our businesses won't survive without BP's help."

The company has begun speeding up the claims process for business owners along the coast and has started easing documentation requirements, BP spokeswoman Pat Wright said Tuesday.

Taxable lodging rentals for Orange Beach area and Gulf Shores, just down the road, declined 7.3 percent from the year before for May alone, according to the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau. Numbers are not in yet for June and July, typically the busiest months and those that saw the most tourist cancellations this year.

More than 2,000 beach closures
A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council found the oil had forced beaches along the Gulf Coast to issue nearly 10 times as many closing and advisory days as last year — more than 2,000, compared with 237 in 2009.

The Fourth of July weekend fizzled, with many fireworks displays canceled, replaced instead by cleanup workers and heavy equipment removing oil-stained sand from the beaches.

Tourist traffic picked up this past weekend in Gulf Shores, bringing a drive-in crowd that can make last-minute plans — but not the kind of weeklong visitors who make or break the summer.

A few scattered tar balls stained the sand and a light sheen shimmered in the sun just offshore while families splashed in the surf, sunbathed and tried to make the best of one of the first nice — and clean — beach weekends there in weeks.

"Growing up, we always came to Gulf Shores, and this is about as pretty the water has looked as I can remember," said Michael Hitch, 34, a pastor from New Orleans who came over for the weekend with his wife and three children.

"Well, at least today it is," he added with a nervous chuckle. "We've been staying away for about 2½ months now."

Even with weekend tourist traffic picking up, it's nowhere near what it should be.

Don Roberts just opened his beachside service business in Gulf Shores this year, hoping to make some cash renting chairs, floats and umbrellas.

"The season's over now, man," Roberts said with a sigh, sweating in the early morning sun as he set out his wares. A few tourists trickled by, but an hour later, he had made no sales.

"I just hope people start coming back if they haven't already made other plans," he said. "It's going to be tough."

No matter that the beaches appear clean and the water clear now, perception — not oil — has become the region's biggest hurdle.

"Look at the beach; it's as clean as it can be," griped B.J. Johnson, owner of Funny Cars in Pensacola Beach, which rents out vehicles similar to golf carts that visitors can use to ferry themselves around town. "But where are the people?"

He's waiting on his BP claims check to help keep his doors open.

"We're 30 days away from Labor Day. You can't make up an entire summer in 30 days," Johnson said. "There's just no way."