The Sanibel and Captiva Chamber of Commerce reports businesses on the two islands lost $19 million in just July and August. Thursday, US Senator Bill Nelson met with business owners to talk about solutions.
Among the stores with representation at the meeting was Bailey’s General store, which has operated on Sanibel Island since 1899. It’s still a family business and it has expanded, but on a recent September day the fully stocked grocery store on Perriwinkle Drive saw only a few tourists who weren’t scared off by images of algae and fish kills on the beaches.
Tom and Leslie Staskel came from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
“I was abreast of the red tide situation but we had the trip planned and we figured, you know, everybody down here would advise you properly what to do and what not to do,” Tom Staskel said.
“It was kind of weird, but it was nice. We went into a couple of places on Captiva and we were the only ones in there,” Leslie Staskel added.
Calli Johnson’s great Uncle, Sam Bailey started the business with his brother Frank at the turn of the last century. Johnson is now an owner and manager of the family business, and this week she was among a contingent of Sanibel business owners in a Fort Myers conference room asking US Senator Bill Nelson to fix the algae problem.
“Our business in August is down 40% which represents half a million dollars for us and we’re on track to do the same in September,” Johnson said. “We need you to help our state leaders take care of that because we won’t be able to make it to 200 years if we don’t handle it now.”
Nelson heard from restaurant owners, bicycle renters, and hoteliers like Chris Davison from Island Inn, who brought a stack of 350 cancelled reservations to the meeting.
“If you would so graciously request the Army Corps of Engineers to stop the discharges now…we can’t handle any more water right now. We need a win. We need a break. Will you make that request for us?” Davidson asked.
Nelson assured him he has made that request and he will do so again, but he added, the Army Corps of engineers will respond with concerns of a weak Herbert Hoover Dyke and the possibility of flooding the towns near Lake Okeechobee.
At one point during the roundtable discussion Thursday, Nelson was handed a post-it note letting him know that the US house passed the water bill, which authorizes the building of a 10-thousand acre reservoir to store excess water south of the lake.
One of the business owners asked what the timeline was for something like that, and Nelson shared the budgeting and building process with the people at the table. But, the conversation quickly turned back to the immediate crisis of businesses about to go under as soon as this season.
Josh Constantine, a fishing boat captain, told the Senator he’s only had three charters since mid July and the season ahead - which is typically booked by now- has almost no reservations through next May.
“I started guiding in 2010 because it’s all I’ve done my entire life is fish. And, now I got twins - I just had twins. What, they’re like 6 weeks old now and that water puts diapers on them,” Constantine said.
Nelson talked about his plans to propose a tax deduction for businesses hurt by the algae crisis, but after meeting with this group, seemed to realize more may be needed.
“Now that will help a lot of businesses if I can get that passed. But, it’s not going to help those charter boat captains, because they’re not going to have any taxable income. So, a deduction doesn’t help them. So we got to find other ways to help them,” Nelson said.