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Oil Spill Already Hurting Florida's Panhandle
 Tourist-based Economy

By Kevin Spear and Sara Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 4, 2010 - --PENSACOLA BEACH -- The huge oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico remained well away from Florida's Panhandle on Monday, but the region's tourism-based economy already is taking a hit that many fear will be worse than Hurricane Ivan in 2004 or the recent global recession.

"We are used to disasters, but this is epic," said Julian MacQueen, chief executive officer of Innisfree Hotels, which owns a Hilton in Pensacola Beach and three other hotels in the area. He figures that as many as 40 percent of his reservations will be canceled once authorities put Florida on notice that oil is expected to hit shore within three days.

"March and April were the best months we have had since Hurricane Ivan," said MacQueen, who is overseeing development of a $60 million Holiday Inn resort here. "We felt like the worst was over."

A well that blew out April 20 while being drilled by BP PLC in 5,000 feet of water, killing 11 workers, continues to release about 210,000 gallons a day of crude oil into the Gulf about 40 southeast of the Mississippi River delta.

A light sheen of oil reached Louisiana's wetlands during the weekend, and in Pensacola television stations now report the spill's position and movement as if it were a hurricane. As of Monday night, the weather forecast for Tuesday was for wind from the north.

"That's going to slow down the oil's approach," said Christian Garmin of WEAR-TV in Pensacola.

Florida authorities are investigating reports that some oil sheen already has drifted onto the state's coastline. Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday extended a state emergency in the western Panhandle as far south as Sarasota County.

A commonly shared worry in Pensacola Beach is that the rusty-red sweet crude gushing from the damaged well will inevitably hit the area's famous sugar-sand beaches.

That would mean the worst is yet to come -- still, the damage already has begun, with out-of-state visitors making nervous calls to local hotels for a status report or to say they aren't coming. Also worried are the owners of thousands of coastal condominiums who typically pay their mortgages with summer rental income.

But the threat of lost income doesn't stop there.

"If there's no beach and fishing, that's at least 70 percent of my business," said Dewayne Espy, 32, manager of the Waffle House in Gulf Breeze. Next door, Victor Wright, 39, general manager of Gulf Breeze Bait & Tackle, said the family-owned business has begun to feel the pinch.

Federal authorities have banned fishing in Gulf waters starting about 20 miles offshore -- a ban that Wright fears will soon be expanded to include all of the extensive waterways around Pensacola.

That's especially daunting because Wright's business peaks during summer, when school is out, red snapper season is open, and he does a brisk business selling live shrimp and fiddler crabs, expensive rods and reels, and cheap sunglasses.

"Most of our business is packed into June and July," Wright said. "We're losing business now."

Wright was among more than 350 people who crammed into a Pensacola Beach church on Monday afternoon to hear from BP. He pressed Liz Castro, a company director for civic affairs, for straight answers on compensation for certain losses.

Castro urged the audience to call a toll-free claims line: 800-440-0858. "What are they going to do?" Wright asked Castro. "It's not going to be prompt. All these people are not going to get their money promptly."

Farther to the east, tourism officials in Panama City Beach were encouraging visitors to check conditions as their trip dates near. They also urged businesses to document losses in case tourism operators are able to file claims later for lost revenue.

"We are making sure that we are being prudent in our planning, but we don't want to elevate it to beyond where it is," said Dan Rowe, chief executive officer of the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, though he added: "Our economy is driven by tourism; if there was an impact from the oil spill, the potential is there that it could be quite devastating."

Tourism officials from across the state discussed during a conference call Monday the oil slick's potential for disrupting leisure and business travel to all parts of Florida.

"Really, I don't think there's any part of the state that feels they're unaffected, from at least the planning and the monitoring," said Kathy Torian, a spokeswoman for Visit Florida, the state's tourism-marketing agency.

In Orlando, it was business as usual Monday, though the local visitors bureau said it was concerned about how potential travelers were perceiving the situation.

"If you're an international visitor, or even if you're a domestic visitor, sometimes, if you don't know geography, what may be several hundred miles away may, in someone's mind, be next door," said Gary Sain, director of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Florida has had to counter perceptions of widespread destruction or disruption before, after hurricanes have roared ashore in one part of the state or wildfires have blackened another.

"We're trying to stress the fact that there's over 2,200 miles of shoreline in the state of Florida," said D.T. Minich, director of tourism for the St. Petersburg-Clearwater area. "But we have had people asking if our beaches are affected."

Federal officials said Monday that government aid may become available for businesses. The spreading oil is likely to be declared a national disaster, which would allow business owners to apply for help with lost income or cleanup costs, said U.S. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D- New Smyrna Beach.

The spill could become a full-blown disaster for Florida and its $65 billion-a-year tourism industry if, as some experts warn could happen, the oil gets caught up in the "loop" current that runs south along the state's Gulf Coast and east through the Straits of Florida, past the Florida Keys, before heading north into the Atlantic Ocean past Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

"If your tourism and your beaches are not only threatened on the Gulf Coast but then are threatened on the southeast coast, then you just have major economic disaster," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

In Pensacola Beach, charter-boat captain Mike Newell already has received cancellation calls and expects to soon be "dead in the water." Most of the fishing trips on his 46-foot-long Miss Marisa, in pursuit of tuna, dolphin and wahoo, take place at least 50 miles offshore, in an area of the Gulf now closed to fishing.

"I can't take people out for $1,200 to $1,500 a day to fish in oil," Newell said.

Fred Simmons, a real estate, restaurant and motel owner, said he invested his life savings in his businesses to survive the recession. Simmons, like many others in the Panhandle, said he would rather face a major storm than an oil slick the size of a small state.

"I don't lose sleep over hurricanes," said Simmons, whose various businesses have "Paradise" in their names. "I'm damn sure losing sleep over this."

Kevin Spear can be reached at kspear@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5062. Sara Clarke can be reached at sclarke@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5664.

More on issues about drilling in the Gulf:

Obama's offshore drilling plan is a disappointment

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To see more of The Orlando Sentinel or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.OrlandoSentinel.com.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

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