Panhandle tourists put aside oil spill for holiday

DESTIN — The shucked oysters and grouper sandwiches were flying out of the kitchen Sunday at Pompano Joe's, an oceanside restaurant popular with Gulf Coast tourists.

The parking complex at the Silver Sands outlet store was jammed. Bars were crowded. Traffic moved at a snail's pace on U.S. 98 — and few complained.

After weeks of fears of an economic disaster in northwest Florida because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the crowds are back this Memorial Day weekend, which kicks off the summer tourist season in the region known as the Emerald Coast.

"I'm trying to get our economy going," said Joan Franklin of Tampa, who wasn't about to let oil spill fears keep her from a trip she looks forward to every year.

"We figured the spill wasn't going to hit. It looks like it's nowhere near here," said B.J. Morrison of Hattiesburg, Miss., who waited a half hour to get a table at Pompano Joe's — where a manager said Saturday's cash receipts broke the single-day record.

"What you're seeing now is a peak of people coming to the beach," said Amelia Snellgrove of Pelham, Ga. "They don't want to wait and have the oil come. Everybody I know came to the beach this weekend."

Destin beachgoers were surprised to get a first-hand welcome from Gov. Charlie Crist, who showed up to personally thank the tourists for coming.

"I'm the governor, and we're happy to have you," Crist said to Terry Harris of Birmingham, standing near a bright-red beach tent. Harris and a group of friends were enjoying their second pitcher of what Alabamians call "summer beer" — a mixture of Crystal Light lemonade, light beer and vodka.

With TV cameras at the ready, Crist signed paperwork freeing more than $2 million for Panhandle tourism boards to spend on ads tailored to keep people coming to northwest Florida. The 45-day commercial blitzes will be paid for with some of BP's $25 million donated to Florida.

That's good, said Carol Dover of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, who estimated that restaurant business across the Gulf Coast is down 30 percent since the spill. A number of places have laid off workers, Dover said.

"It's our job to help," Crist said. "We're all in this together. We don't have a drop of oil on our beaches, and we want to make sure the people across America understand that."

Crist and his wife, Carole, spent the weekend at the Hilton in nearby Sandestin — keeping the governor's face on Panhandle TV stations as he tries to gain ground as an independent U.S. Senate candidate.

Farther east, near Port St. Joe, Presnell's Bayside Marina hosts in-shore charter fishing trips. Known as "flats fishing," small groups of people head out to St. Joseph Bay to fish for some of the best scallops around.

The scalloping is better than usual this season, and co-owner Paula Erickson said if oil sneaks into the bay, it would devastate the wildlife and her livelihood.

"We're saying prayers every day that it doesn't come this way," she said.

Her son, Capt. Kyle Erickson, said he's down between 30 and 40 fishing charter trips since the spill: "I've called them up and many of them say, 'We're not going to come down this year because of the oil.' "

Six Auburn University students were camped on Cape San Blas, a tiny strip of land jutting out from the corner of the Panhandle's Big Bend.

Jacob Wilder, 23, who just graduated with a degree in public relations, said he would have gone to the beach even if there was oil — he just would have stayed out of the water. His pals were skeptical, reminding him that the oil doesn't smell so good.

"The beach is such a great place, and you hate to see an oil spill happen like this," he said. "With the way the economy is, now we're just taking another hit."

Meg Gillespie, a 26-year-old recent Auburn grad, said her family has plans to head to the beach over Labor Day weekend for her mother's birthday. Instead of secluded Cape San Blas, they'll head to busier Panama City, where the kids have more entertainment options.

But she quickly added a caveat that is an ominous warning for the tourism industry: "We'll go to the mountains if it's oily."

Bill and Diane Smith of Moultrie, Ga., have been coming to their family's vacation home on Mexico Beach for decades.

"We're hoping this is not the last time in our lifetime we can see this," Diane Smith said, pointing at the clear blue gulf water.

Her husband reflected a common sentiment about BP: "We're mad as hell," he said. "I don't care if they had to have 100 backups. It goes back to the almighty dollar. They don't want to spend the money" on more fail-safes.

On Saturday afternoon, cars with license tags from Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and Tennessee crawled along for nearly an hour on the main drag leading to Panama City Beach. Residents said it was normal holiday traffic — and that was a good thing.

"There's a lot of folks on the beach, which is wonderful," said Dan Rowe, head of the Bay County Tourist Development Council.

Calypso Resort and Towers, a 23-story mix of rental and private condos on the western end of Panama City Beach, reported a "completely full" booking list.

"We get a lot of calls, with the rumors of the oil spill," said front desk employee Stevie Lyn. "We just ease their minds and tell them what we're seeing out here."

Like other Panhandle resorts, Calypso offers a relaxed cancellation policy in case oil does wash up. That way, Lyn said, the hotel would know how big of a bill to send BP for loss of business.

Stephen Leatherman, the Florida International University professor whose ratings of the nation's top beaches has earned him the nickname "Dr. Beach," is keeping an eye on the spill.

"Everybody knows it's swirling there in the gulf," he said. "Some people only have a vague idea of where all that stuff is anyway. It's somewhat of a nightmare for people who are trying to sell their destination."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263. Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Panhandle tourists put aside oil spill for holiday 05/30/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 31, 2010 9:44am]

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