CLEARWATER — Two men in dark suits strolled onto Clearwater Beach on Wednesday and dug up some of the pristine white sugar sand.
They weren't looking for globs of oil. They were looking to make a point.
Ken Lucci said his company, Ambassador Limousine, just lost $20,000 worth of business when an event planner he works with canceled a September convention of accountants and estate planners at Clearwater Beach because of oil spill fears.
"It was going to be two nights, 125 people, with a golf outing," Lucci said. "She called today and said, 'We're not coming down. We're going to go to Savannah instead because we're afraid of the oil.' "
That's how Lucci and one of his drivers, Brian J. Reese, ended up shoveling sand into a couple of the 5-gallon wash buckets they use to clean limos.
Lucci wants to send a message. He plans to mail little bottles of clean white sand to 50 event planners around the country to show them that the beach here is unspoiled. He'll also send samples to Fox News and CNN.
"You and I know that we're eight hours away from Pensacola. But the headlines and the snippets of TV footage just say, 'Oil hits Florida beaches,' " Lucci said. "Look at this sugar sand. It's business as usual here, but word's not getting out."
Just one man and one business. But his concerns are echoed by the entire Tampa Bay tourism and restaurant industry.
Business people fear that the BP oil spill is scaring away visitors who think all Florida beaches are covered in tar.
The men in suits sweated as they shoveled the sand. It was a hot, sunny day. People in bathing suits frolicked at the water's edge.
Former Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst came out to watch. He's planning another offshore power boat race for early October. Aungst is hearing a lot of worries from his friends in the tourism industry. They fear that European visitors won't come this summer.
"Clearwater Beach is still as pristine as it ever was," he said. "We're open for business, and we're ready to roll out the red carpet."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.