|By Jerry W. Jackson, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 6, 2004 - The economic pain from the 2004 hurricane season will be felt for a long time, but one of the silver linings has surfaced: Thousands of evacuees and relief workers from Hurricane Charley gave Orange County's resort-tax collections a boost when they packed local hotels in August.
The $8.3 million in taxes raised in August through hotels and other short-term rentals set a record for that month and was 22 percent above August 2003. Cumulative collections for the fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, were running 18 percent higher than last year as of the end of August, Orange County Comptroller Martha Haynie said.
Orlando-area hotel operators said that, as fast as Hurricane Charley sent vacationers packing, their empty rooms were filled -- first with in-state residents seeking shelter, then with the post-storm workers who flooded into the state.
"We had a lot of relief workers, people from FEMA and the Red Cross," said Colin Findley, general manager of Hilton Garden Inn Orlando at SeaWorld International Center. "Yes, a lot of people [tourists] left, but we also had a lot of locals looking for shelter. So overall, we did see the numbers go up."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinated relief efforts, established the Orlando area as a base for its statewide operations following the storms, as did the Red Cross and many religious groups offering aid.
The surprisingly strong August followed an already robust spring and early summer for area hotels, as resort-tax records soared with the post-9/11 rebound in travel.
Both the convention sector and the vacation-travel side of the business were hitting their stride by March, when Orange County's hotel-bed tax set an all-time record for any month of $12.17 million. That surpassed the $12.14 record set in March 2000, before the 2001 recession and terrorist attacks.
Findley and other hotel specialists said they expect September's tourist-tax total to improve as well because of the influx of refugees and aid workers that followed Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. Many of the laborers who came from other states to help haul away debris also packed Florida hotels and motels.
Richard Maladecki, president of the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association, said the local industry is "cautiously optimistic" about revenue remaining strong in both September and October.
"So many people came inland. We were able to accommodate a lot of people," Maladecki said. "Our rooms were an asset to the state."
The Orlando area, with more than 112,000 hotel rooms, is the nation's second-largest lodging market, trailing only Las Vegas.
Many of the region's hotels sustained varying amounts of physical damage during the storms, and the cost of repairs or insurance deductibles -- and, in some cases, the loss of revenue from damaged rooms -- will pinch the pocketbooks of individual hotel operators.
Findley said the Hilton Garden came thorough the first two storms without damage, but Jeanne resulted in some minor exterior damage, though not serious enough to close any rooms.
A number of Orlando-area hotels were hit surprisingly hard, including the downtown Holiday Inn, which has closed all 276 rooms while repairs are made. The Crowne Plaza Orlando Airport has temporarily shuttered 200 of its 353 rooms as well as its atrium.
Far more rooms were lost in coastal counties near where the hurricanes came ashore, such as Brevard and Volusia, with small beachside motels taking the worst blows.
Orange County's resort tax, which is now 5 percent of room revenue, was enacted in the late 1970s. Proceeds are used primarily to finance expansion of the Orange County Convention Center and to help pay for local tourism-industry promotions.
Orange was not alone in recording a boost to hotel revenue in August. Neighboring Osceola County, with most of its rooms clustered near Walt Disney World, also saw its hotel bed-tax surge during the month -- to $3 million, up more than 30 percent from $2.3 million in August 2003.
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