PENSACOLA BEACH — Gary Chernekoff doesn’t own a restaurant, isn’t a charter boat captain and doesn’t work for a hotel or resort. At first blush, he’s not directly connected to the tourism industry that is so important here along the Florida Gulf coast.
But Chernekoff is hurting. A plumber by trade, he was expected to have a busy and profitable summer. He had three big jobs lined up. Vacation homes being built in this summer tourist mecca. It was more than enough work for a one-man operation. Then Deepwater Horizon sank and with it, Chernokoff’s source of income.
As state and BP officials respond to the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, Chernekoff’s predicament is echoed along Florida’s Gulf coast, which at least one economist says could suffer the loss of 39,000 jobs and a $2.2 billion in economic activity from the prolonged impact of oil washing up on Florida shores.
A state-run advertising campaign paid for by $25 million in BP cash appears to be helping fill rooms in the Panhandle region. How long the ad money will keep filling rooms if more oil washing ashore remains to be seen.
State officials have been trying to respond. Last week, Gov. Charlie Crist launched a state-run program that will provide low interest loans of up to $25,000 for business affected by the spill. BP has so far paid nearly $50 million in claims across Gulf states, including more than $5 million in Florida.
Officials are also considering measures to provide property tax credits and relax sales tax collection rules in an effort to help businesses address cash flow problems brought on by the unexpected dip in revenue.
Economist Sean Snaith, who directs the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, said a conservative estimate has the state losing at least $2.2 billion in revenue and 39,000 jobs.
That’s assuming a 10 percent decline in employment and output in tourism-related business in the 23 counties on the Florida Gulf coast.
If the impact becomes more severe or prolonged, dropping employment and output in half, Snaith said the state could lose nearly $11 billion in business activity and more than 195,000 jobs. That would be a body blow to a state just recovering from a housing market crash and suffering high unemployment. He acknowledges that exact numbers are difficult to nail down.
What’s also difficult to measure is how much more time local officials will give BP and the federal government to respond in the midst of the worst local environmental disaster in memory. Last week, a local chamber of commerce official in coastal Alabama said he would organize members to clean the beaches with or without BP’s blessing and even if it meant going to jail. That sort of environmental vigilantism is picking up steam.
The company has so far told residents not to pick up tar balls or other material that comes ashore. But the directive is wearing thin along the Panhandle, where residents and businesses alike are fighting for survival of both their livelihoods and way of life.
Volunteers along Florida’s Gulf are waiting to help. It’s only a matter of time before they do, with or without approval. After all, it’s their home.
E-mail Michael Peltier at email@example.com.