Lee tourism council endorses spending bed tax dollars on algae emergency

Laura Ruane
The News-Press

With no end in sight to Southwest Florida’s water quality crisis, advisers to Lee County's tourism industry Thursday endorsed an “open-ended” amount from bed tax reserves to help with the clean-up.

The county Tourist Development Council meeting Thursday in downtown Fort Myers also:

• Endorsed spending $1 million in bed tax reserves for a marketing campaign to kick off once the beaches are clear of masses of dead fish; and

• OK’d spending roughly $122,000 for two Barber Surf Rakes – machines that scoop up fish carcasses, but which don’t take up a lot of sand.

The money will come from the county's 5 percent tourist development tax, also known as the "bed tax." It is charged on short-term rentals of hotel and motel lodgings, condominiums and campsites.

Assistant County Manager Glen Salyer estimated the county had $11.4 million in “excess” bed tax reserves. That's money beyond the 20 percent of cumulative bed-tax revenues that county policy requires to stay in reserves.

The bed-tax spending recommendations will go before county commissioners on Aug. 21.

More than once, the word “disaster” was used at the tourism council meeting.

Here’s why:

Dead fish line the beach on Captiva at the last public beach access before South Seas Resort on Thursday 8/9/2018.

First, the red tide dating back to last October continues, although it moves around.

Blooms, or higher-than-normal concentrations of the red tide alga, known as Karenia brevis, happen nearly every year in the Gulf of Mexico.

But the natural phenomenon that can kill marine life and make it harder for humans to breathe is especially severe this time around. Dead fish and sea turtles have been washing up on local beaches and into area passes for the past two months.

There are no indications that the red tide is going away anytime soon. 

Secondly, blue-green algae blooms in inland Lee County canals and marinas that are linked to Lake Okeechobee freshwater discharges remain pervasive.

The two foul conditions are grabbing national headlines, and scaring away some much-wanted visitors. Two examples of the impact:

• At family-owned, 118-year-old Bailey’s General Store on Sanibel, “we’ve seen a retailing drop in sales of up to 30 percent in the store,” said Richard Johnson.  

“In the grocery business,” Johnson said, “that’s catastrophic.”

Johnson added that he’s heard several visitors say they wouldn’t be coming back for vacations.

• At Island Inn on Sanibel, general manager Chris Davison estimates the resort has lost $125,000 in canceled bookings since July 29.

Tourism and hospitality businesses are linchpins in Southwest Florida's economy.

Paid lodgings in Lee alone attracted more than 3 million visitors in 2017.

Although summer isn’t the most lucrative season, fewer visitors now profoundly hurts given that an estimated one in five residents owe their jobs to tourism and hospitality.

And, expenses to local government for the clean-up are mounting.

The city of Sanibel estimates it’s spent $500,000 so far; Lee County, unincorporated, more than $200,000. The town of Fort Myers Beach has spent $173,000 and foresees spending at least another $102,000.

Funding is the big issue for communities confronted with removing algae and disposing of dead sea creatures that are washing up on beaches, streets and even bridges.

A dead wading bird lies in the surf on Bunche Beach on Wednesday 8/8/2018. A read tide outbreak is killing a large number of fish, turtles and marine life. Wading birds can be affected by eating dead fish that have succumbed from red tide.

There’s been some help from the state: A grant of $3 million is being divided among seven counties affected by the algae crisis.

Last Friday, Lee County's original share of the state emergency money, $700,000, was increased by another $400,000.

Salyer noted it’s impossible to know how much money is needed to get beaches and waterways back into shape, when no one knows how long the red tide or blue-green algae will linger or how long the cleanup will take.

The special beach rakes the council endorsed buying will be made available for use on both unincorporated county beaches and along municipal shorelines.

They'll be money-savers because, if too much sand is collected along with the dead fish, and other debris, the load can’t go to the county incinerator, but instead must go to the landfill in Hendry County.

“The tipping fees (at the landfill) are getting out of line. Plus, we’re taking sand off the beaches,” said Jesse Lavender, director for Lee County Parks and Recreation.

As for the $1 million for emergency tourism marketing, the big question is: When can it be sensibly spent?

A campaign would be foolhardy now, when dead fish still litter many beaches … and numerous inland canals are a sickly green.

“We’re talking about being in the ready when we get that all-clear sign,” said Tamara Pigott, executive director for the county Visitor & Convention Bureau.

The bureau has prepared a “very strong” monthlong marketing campaign focusing “people searching for beach destinations" through online travel agencies, Pigott said.

The sun sets at Bunche Beach on Wednesday 8/8/2018. Several dead fish and a wading bird were found nearby. Red tide is persisting in several areas throughout Southwest Florida.

Following that, Pigott’s team recommends a fall TV campaign in key markets.

Andrea Carriere, owner of the Silver Sands Villas boutique hotel on Fort Myers Beach, is out of town for a little rest and recreation.

“We had a bunch of cancellations last week, but we’ve got a full house this weekend. We’re holding our own,” she said, when reached by phone.

Carriere supports dipping into bed tax reserves for the cleanup and the tourism promotion that will follow.

“It’s our economy, our livelihoods” at stake, she noted.

However, she thinks there should be a cap on how many bed tax dollars can be allotted.

If more cleanup than anticipated is needed, county commissioners can go back to the tourism council to get its blessing to spend more bed tax dollars.

But Jacki Liszak, a fellow hotelier and president of the Beach chamber, sees it differently.

Fort Myers Beach is on the upswing from its bout with red tide, with “people out on the beach and in the water,” Liszak said.

The sun sets at Bunche Beach as a Great Blue Heron saunters by on Wednesday 8/8/2018. Several dead fish and a dead heron were found nearby. Red tide is persisting in several areas throughout Southwest Florida.

Still, keeping the bed tax allocation open-ended, “probably is not a bad idea,” Liszak said, “because we don’t know whether the red tide will come back.”