ST. PETE BEACH — As oil washed closer to Florida on Thursday, local businesses and environmentalists said the state must spread a critically important message: Tampa Bay beaches are still oil-free.
Many tourists "think Florida is under oil, they think the fish are contaminated and they think that their experience is going to be a bad one," said Keith Overton, CEO of TradeWinds Island Resorts.
But publicity about the Gulf of Mexico disaster is causing serious financial pain for local tourism-related business, even though the oil hasn't reached Tampa Bay, and may never do so.
Those were the comments made Thursday by several participants during a meeting on the spill organized by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.
Patricia Hubbard, whose family has deep roots in Pinellas tourism with the Friendly Fisherman restaurant and Hubbard's Marina at John's Pass, said, "My brother who runs the marina, Hubbard's Marina, is bracing for closure."
"It's beyond scary to think what's going to happen."
Fishing boat Capt. Travis Palladeno said he canceled 60 charter trips recently because the places where he goes on deep-water, big-grouper trips have been closed by federal officials because of the spill.
"I don't know how I'm going to make my mortgage payments next month," he said.
Yet no one seems to be letting the world know that the Tampa Bay area remains untouched by the massive spill, businesspeople said at the meeting. Meanwhile, Castor said, she saw television ads over the weekend promoting beaches in Mississippi.
Although Gov. Charlie Crist and many other leaders have been stressing that the oil hasn't reached Florida, the state now faces the likelihood that it may wash up to North Florida at any time.
Some of the local leaders who spoke Thursday hinted at drawing a distinction between the Pensacola-area beaches that could see oil the soonest, and Tampa Bay beaches, which might never get any.
"We have empathy for our friends and colleagues in the Panhandle, but, quite frankly, my mission is the Tampa Bay area," said Robin Grabowski, CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce. She wants tourists to know: "We are open for business. We have white sands, we have beautiful sunsets."
"There's not enough being spent to promote this area," said Frank Dame, executive vice president of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
Overton, who also is chairman of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said none of the $25 million BP gave to Florida for marketing efforts appears to have been spent to promote the Tampa Bay area.
Although they didn't agree on everything, the business and environmental groups at the meeting did find common ground.
Some business leaders said the Tampa Bay area's beautiful coastal environment gives them customers. And Overton said those businesses are a likely source of revenue for efforts to help protect the environment.
Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club pledged to help organize a campaign to urge local people to take their vacations close to home, benefitting businesses like Overton's.