Water Crisis Impact: Businesses hope to bounce back as tourists return

Red tide and blue-green algae ravaged Southwest Florida’s ecosystem and businesses across the state reported laying off workers and even closing their doors.

For now, the fish, birds and tourists are just starting to flock back.

“The whole idea of being here is being near the ocean,” said Shari-Lynn Battaglia, visiting from Rochester, NY with her husband to go shelling.

She and many other tourists said they would have changed their plans if the red tide hadn’t receded off the coast.

“I’m very excited that it’s gone, the timing couldn’t have been better,” said Candy Robinson. She and her husband are visiting from Colorado Springs, CO.

But just a few months ago, many would barely recognize the beaches.

“It was pretty odd, because there was no birds on the beach,” said Jeff Beigh, co-owner of Nanny’s Children’s Shoppe on Sanibel. “There was nothing, but the smell.”

Shuffling behind the counter, Beigh rings up a customer. Other than the radio playing softly in the background, the store is quiet. A sharp contrast to the loud and colorful sea of children’s clothing, toys and accessories that fill it.

“My daughter asked me to loan her the money to buy this [the shop],” Beigh said. They took over the store six years ago. “So I’m here occasionally.”

He’s used to seeing crowded beaches and steady business, but this summer, he said tourists just didn’t show up, causing his sales to go down nearly 50 percent. In the meantime, he also laid off his only two employees, something he’s never had to do before. And he’s not alone.

This summer, the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity, DEO, sent out surveys to businesses all over the state to gauge the impact of the water crisis. So far, 409 businesses responded.

In Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties, business reported laying off 401 employees and at least 10 businesses say they had to close temporarily.

“It was almost eerie the lack of people,” Beigh said. “Walk in the grocery store next door, no one there.”

We wanted to know: With no one there, how much money did they lose?

According to the survey, restaurants, hotels, boat charters and even boutique’s (like Beigh’s store) reported losing more than $140 million. Southwest Florida took the brunt of it, losing roughly $122 million. Those numbers don’t include the countless struggling businesses that didn’t complete the survey.

“This isn’t just an ecological and environmental disaster but this is an economical disaster,” said John Paeno, owner of CGT Kayaks in Bonita Springs.

He also turned to the DEO for help. He’d normally be renting out kayaks and paddle boards all summer, but he and his neighbors struggled to stay afloat.

“We had trouble with all kinds of things, from falling behind on rent to utilities, to having to not pay employees,” Paeno said.

His livelihood literally depends on clean water, and red tide sent more than just a ripple through the local economy.

“We lost our whole summer industry paddling on the water,” Paeno said.

So what’s next for Beigh and Paeno?

“Well it’s slowly coming back,” Beigh said. “People are at least coming in and spending a little bit of money.”

“We’ve been through a lot of hard times over the years,” Paeno said. “I don’t think this is going to put us out of businesses, no”

With season already here, other than a permanent solution to the water crisis, they’re really only asking for one thing.

“It’s not perfect yet but it’s much much better,” Beigh said. “Please come on back.”

For businesses who are struggling, the DEO offers a number of small business loans they can take advantage of, and Visit Florida is offering a free Red Tide Recovery Marketing Program to help tourism businesses with promotion which you can find HERE. 

Reporter:Sara Girard
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