Tourism businesses on the Pinellas beaches suffered through a cold spring but saw signs in April that the county's biggest industry might be headed for a turnaround year.
Then came the explosion of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig and the massive oil slick in the gulf. Though oil never came near the Pinellas coast, reservations lines at local hotels stopped ringing. Smaller crowds spent less at candy shops, and on tour boats and other staples of a beach vacation.
In recent weeks, tourism businesses got long-awaited relief: money from the agency administering BP's $20 billion compensation fund to cover financial losses caused by the spill.
More than 68,000 Florida individuals and businesses have received $992 million so far, says the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. Nearly 20,000 businesses alone were paid $592 million.
The agency couldn't break out on Wednesday the number of payments in Pinellas. But 5,186 Pinellas residents and businesses filed claims, ninth most among Florida counties. Hillsborough's 2,689 claimants ranked No. 10 in the state.
The claims process has attracted the ire of Florida officials. They were first critical of a decision — later reversed — not to honor claims where oil didn't soil beaches. Later they criticized how slowly claims were paid.
But word spread in Pinellas business circles over the past month that payments were arriving.
"It was greatly appreciated," said Patty Hubbard, an owner of Friendly Fisherman restaurant in Madeira Beach, which received $20,900 on a $32,000 claim for June losses. "It's good that they recognized Pinellas County was impacted by the oil spill."
At least half of 15 large hotels from Clearwater Beach to St. Pete Beach were paid compensation from the BP fund, says Keith Overton, chief financial officer at the 800-room TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach. The company received $1.3 million, some of which went to owners of condo hotel units managed by the TradeWinds.
Small business also collected. Summer visitor traffic from nearby hotels suddenly fell off at the Lemon Tree Spa in St. Pete Beach, owner Lisa Dressler said.
She ran up bills for beauty supplies on her credit cards and opened the spa's doors daily instead of five days a week. Dressler wouldn't say how much she received, only that it was enough to put a big dent in her credit card debt.
Small businesses on the beaches that filed claims got nearly their entire claim or a good percentage, said Robin Grabowski, president of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. But many were intimidated by the paperwork required to back up a claim.
"They're not like large businesses with processes in place for granular bookkeeping," Grabowski said. "Small businesses operate almost from cash flow from day to day."
The TradeWinds pulled together three previous years of revenue and profit statements for the same six-month period that followed the April 21 blast to establish the spill caused a substantial loss, Overton said.
At a sweets shop on the John's Pass boardwalk in Madeira Beach, Larry Butterfield collected two years of tax returns. He also sent photos of big crowds on the boardwalk for earlier fishing tournaments.
Competitions dwindled as the government closed huge swaths of the gulf to fishing. Tourists who once took boat tours or fishing charters weren't around to stop at his shop, Kilwin's Ice Cream, Chocolates and Fudge. Butterfield received a payment in the mid five figures, he said.
The majority of money paid to Floridians was in "emergency advance payments," to cover losses for all or part of this year. The next step will be establishing rules to pay for future damages.
That could take into account how many tourists stay away because they think Florida's beaches are covered in oil or who tried destinations on the Atlantic coast and will now go there instead, said Overton, who is also chair of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.
Disasters stick in people's memories. Four years after the state was hit by four hurricanes and a tropical storm, fall bookings for meetings and conventions are still "horrendous," Overton said.
"Florida has a brand — sunshine, beautiful beaches and seafood — that's the most powerful in all tourism. That brand has been damaged."