CLEARWATER BEACH — Over the last three weeks, scores of college and high school students crossed the Memorial Causeway to soak in the sun on the soft sand of Clearwater Beach.
The annual ritual is typically a boost for beach merchants who cater to the partying teens and 20-somethings.
But for many businesses, spring break 2008 was a mixed bag. While some reported increased sales, others saw a drop-off.
While people are still coming to Clearwater Beach for spring break, many are looking for ways to economize.
"People are still vacationing, they are just doing it differently," said Paul VonFeldt, the co-owner of Florida-BeachRentals.com on Mandalay Ave. "They may rent a place but then cut corners in other ways."
His company has 200 condominiums, houses and motel rental rooms on the beach. He said he had record bookings this year.
John Mahony, owner of the Beach Shanty Cafe, said he also had a profitable spring break.
"We did 10 percent over previous years," he said. "It was a good run for us. If you look at our prices, you can get a great meal for a decent price and I think that helps."
Some business owners had to make compromises to draw crowds. Shim Depaz, one of the owners of Freaky Tikki Surf Shack, said he had to lower his prices to lure customers.
"I know my neighbors are complaining a bit but it was good for me," Depaz said.
But the economic picture was bleaker for others on the beach.
At the Clearwater Municipal Arena, many of the charter boat and water scooter owners were dismayed by the lack of traffic. Tony Baker, owner of Double Hook Fishing, which charters fishing trips, said his bookings were down 50 percent.
"Usually, this time of year, you see all these boats?" he asked, pointing. "All these boats would be gone and the dock should be empty. There's no walking around. No people."
Kevin Hollins, of Island Time Adventures, said he had a hard time filling his 3 p.m. boat trip that takes dolphin-seekers into the Gulf of Mexico.
There were many theories about why business was bad for some merchants. Lack of parking. Not enough affordable rooms for college kids. The sour economy.
But there were other challenges, too. Mother Nature wasn't very friendly, bringing rain on several weekends. Also, a trucker's front wheels got stuck in a 4-foot hole on Chestnut Street near Myrtle Avenue on March 17. All four lanes of Chestnut were blocked, snagging traffic on Memorial Causeway for several hours.
Sharon Tate, who works at the Bait House at the marina, said there are no decent affordable motel rooms for the spring breakers, so now they just come to the beach, lie in the sun and leave — without spending money.
"We saw that they were here but as far as making a difference, no. Not at all," Tate said.
Some businesses saw an increase in local college students looking for a cheap vacation.
Jeremy Venham, manager of Cooters Raw Bar and Grill on Poinsettia Avenue, said they had record-setting business during March this year.
"We had a lot more kids this time from Florida," he said.
Lorenzo Boni, the owner of the eight-room Sand Dunes Motel on Rockaway Street, could see the throngs flock to Frenchy's Rockaway Grill from his motel's balcony.
Sadly, his motel remained mostly empty. "Frenchy's has been packed," Boni said. "Where they are staying, I don't know."
Thomas Sutton and his family frequently travel to Clearwater Beach from Lapeer, Mich. But this year, instead of staying on the beach, the family bunked in Spring Hill with family and drove to Clearwater Beach for the day.
"We are not spending as much money doing it this way," Sutton said.
Dale Orvis, 22, understands the ups and downs of spring break like no one else. He strums his acoustic guitar and sings to beachgoers in front of the Mandalay Arcade. People toss donations into his guitar case.
"Some days are good, some days are bad," he said. "One day I made $150. Today, I've got $1.58. It's hit or miss."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or [email protected]