Photo by LESLIE WILLIAMS HALE, Staff // Buy this photo
Photo by QUENTIN ROUX, Staff // Buy this photo
Things may slow down soon, but Marco Island is still hopping after an early Easter raised fears for some and hopes for others of a stunted season.
“I did see the first car carrier yesterday,” said Debbie Naeckel, office manager at Shipps Landing Condominium Association in a Wednesday interview. “It’s a good sign that people are starting to head back up.”
However, Naeckel said most of her residents are sticking around in April, a trend business owners, hotel managers and rental agents are repeating across the island. It provides some answers to the question many were bandying about just a week ago as they awaited the earliest Easter in living memory.
Restaurants are usually a good barometer of how many people are in town and for how long, but restaurant owner Joey Oliverio says the early Easter effect won’t manifest itself either way until May 1.
“Because of the early Easter,” said Oliverio, who is President of the Marco Island Chapter of the Florida Restaurant Association, “our members were generally much busier in March.”
Oliverio said he believes April business should sustain, particularly because of unpleasant weather up north.
“A lot of people considering going home might for that reason stay another month ... until the end of April,” he said.
One possible boost for May visitors, Oliverio added, is that the fishing is good during that month.
Local auto repair and service businesses experience fairly regular pattern of servicing and check-ups prior to the exodus, early Easter or not.
“We’re not seeing much specific difference in the trend,” said Keth Pershing of Island Automotive.
Most customers, he said leave on their regular dates, usually in April or May.
Consistent with the restaurants, local resorts had a March boost because of the early Easter, but expect a slightly softer April as a result.
Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort Mac Chaudhry said a spin-off was that March performance for his resort was stronger than the same month last year.
Meanwhile, fire and police personnel are reporting just as much activity as ever.
“At this point, it does not appear to us as if it has slowed down,” said Police Chief Roger Reinke. “The number of calls in the first two months of the year had actually increased.”
Even at the start of this week, Reinke said, North Collier Boulevard was just as busy as every other day.
“Right now, there’s a lot of people on the island,” Reinke said. “Whether we’re going to see a change at the end of the month remains to be seen.”
Fire Chief Mike Murphy said, on the other hand, that the trend in recent years has been no trend at all from the high season to the off-season.
“One of the phenomena we’ve been seeing over the past few years is the number of calls staying consistent throughout the year,” Murphy said. “We’ve seen an extremely high number of calls of transport, whereby calls are occurring at the same time.”
Murphy said units from as far away as Golden Gate have had to come onto the island to assist and provide zone coverage when his department is tied up, and there does not seem to be an off season for him.
Even though Easter came early, Murphy said, spring break for many students is coming at the same time as always, bringing families and college students onto the island for another vacation push.
“In the next couple of weeks, I think we’ll see more young people on the island, and that’s refreshing,” Murphy said.
Naeckel said she sees many older tenants and owners sticking around to host their grandchildren during spring break. Most residents are at least staying through the first of April, but she conceded that an early Easter does drive back the exodus just a bit.
In addition to spring breaks, she has another theory for what drives people back north: taxes.
“A lot of residents head back before April 15,” she said.
Marco Island Postmaster Irene Moss said it has been an odd year for her in general, with mail volumes down because of postage rate increases and the general downturn of the economy.
“I’m not sure many people came down to begin with,” she said. “It’s been a very strange, kind of bizarre year. People are leaving at little bit, but I wouldn’t say they’re leaving in droves.”
A check with some of her postage carriers painted a slightly different picture, though. She said carriers with condominiums on their routes are seeing a lot of people leaving, though the single family homes appear to be staying occupied for the time being. Workers at the post office counter reported to Moss that more and more people every day are coming in to file change of address forms.
“It does appear they are getting more because Easter came so early,” she said.
George Moore, the manager at the condominium South Seas North, said he does not expect to see many people leaving until the next couple of weeks.
“I think spring break has a lot to do with it,” he said. “We fill up a lot with the young people and most people seem to leave at the same time. The first of next week will probably be our biggest departure.”
Still, he said, many people are likely waiting for the weather to get better. Freezing rain and sleet were reported in New England earlier this week — not much of an enticement for part-timers to return home.
“I assumed it was because the beginning of April is when weather starts to get better up north,” said Debbie Jarvis, administrative assistant at the Royal Seafarer Member Care Center.
She said the climax of rentals for the Royal Seafarer was in February and March, but that things do not seem to be tapering off early this year.
“The fact that Easter has passed I don’t think will have much of an effect,” said Jim Mashey, outgoing president of the Marco Island Area Association of Realtors. “If you look at the months that are most active, February is a big month, and believe it or not, March is the second biggest and January is the third.”
When snowbirds are renting homes and condos for 30 days, they are not likely to cut their stays short because of an early Easter, Mashey said.
“For most (places up north), spring comes later, so they stay away,” he said.
Maria Schilke, an agent at Marco Island Rental Properties, said this month exceeded somewhat grim expectations for her, and April is still looking strong compared to years past.
“When the year started ... we really thought it was going to end early,” she said. “It ended early as the booking high season, but looking at April, it doesn’t look bad at all.”
Schilke has been managing rental properties for 20 years on Marco Island, so she’s had plenty of time to size up the trends and develop a feel for the unexpected.
Conversely, in years past when Easter has landed a bit early, reservations for rentals have practically dropped into oblivion, Schilke said.
“It ends right after Easter and that is it,” she said. “It just — boom — dies.”
She said that as usual, her agency reduced rates after Easter, but will enjoy another month or so of middling rates before dropping to summer prices.
It is that steady trickle of summer business that Fire Chief Mike Murphy said is probably keeping his department busy throughout the year.
“The hotels are staying fuller, from what I understand,” Murphy said.
Hilton Manager Mac Chaudhry provided some reinforcement for that theory. He said group and convention business is fairly promising, but what he calls “transient” (short-term) travelers are hard to predict.
A possible extra injection of business might arise from Europe, he said, because of the strength of the Euro.
“We’re hoping to attract those European travelers,” Chaudhry said, “because we represent good value to them over the summer months.”