SUN PHOTO/CINDY LANE Beachgoers bound for Anna Maria Island on
Cortez Road last Saturday slowed to a crawl at the bridge, far
outnumbering people leaving the Island. This tourist season
is "fantastic" and "going gangbusters," locals say.
It looks to be a winning tourist season on the Island, according to local enterprises.
With snowbirds, spring breakers and local sun worshippers arriving daily, a few minutes crawling across the Manatee Avenue or Cortez Road bridges or inching along Gulf Drive tells the story.
"It’s going gangbusters," said Mary Ann Brockman, President of the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce, where more than 2,900 people came for information in January, followed by more than 2,600 in February. More than 42,000 visited the website in January, and more than 25,000 visited in February.
Recent articles in Southern Living magazine and USA Today helped fuel the influx of visitors, she said.
Publix, the only full-service grocery store on the Island, is doing well, Brockman said, as are the waterfront restaurants, such as the Gulf Drive Café, BeachHouse, Sandbar, Waterfront, Rod n’ Reel Pier and Rotten Ralph’s.
Feeling Swell Surf Bar and Grill, newly-opened at 9903 Gulf Drive in Anna Maria, reports brisk business both in the restaurant and in standup paddleboard rentals, its sideline.
At Paradise Café in Holmes Beach, business has been tremendous, according to owner Jackie Estes.
"I was nervous. We were braced for people not coming because of the economy, but this island is rocking," said Estes, adding that her café served 30 dozen bagels and 150 orders of pancakes on Sunday, a record busy day. "They were out the door, sitting on the sidewalk. It’s our best season ever in 14 years."
The Island Players is hopping, too. By opening night last Thursday, the theater had only three seats left for the first week of its current production, “Sylvia.”
It’s been so busy that some people trying to get to the Anna Maria Island Art League’s Springfest on March 14-15 turned around before they made it to Holmes Beach City Hall park, Director Joyce Karp said.
"It was very busy Saturday and part of Sunday," until the St. Patrick’s Day parade lured people to its venue, she said, adding that vendors reported sales as fair to good.
Vacation rentals, meanwhile, have been extremely strong for even a good economy, much less one in recession.
"It’s been a fantastic season," with many returning visitors from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota, said rental agent Ann Caron of Island Vacation Properties. After cancellations last fall, rental reservations – many of them last-minute bookings – began picking up, and turned the season into one of the best in the past five years, she said.
"We have booked more units for next year than I ever remember," she said, adding that people are already asking about 2011. "We don’t go that far in advance.”
Some aspects of the Island’s economy, however, mirror that of the rest of the nation.
Real estate sales are up slightly at Island Vacation Properties, with half a dozen closings so far this year, mostly cash deals, Caron said.
But statistics show that property sales for January and February on the Island are slower than they have been in more than 15 years, said Dale Friedley of the Manatee County Property Appraiser’s Office.
"You have to go back to 1993 to get two months with that few sales," he said.
On Anna Maria Island, three single family homes sold in January at an average price of $1,063,333, and four sold in February at an average price of $651,250; four condos sold in January at an average price of $460,875, and nine sold in February at an average price of $332,556; and three duplexes sold in January at an average price of $473,333, according to property appraiser records.
In Manatee County, 160 single family homes sold in January and 155 sold in February; 65 condos sold in January and 57 sold in February; and six duplexes sold in January and two duplexes sold in February, according to property appraiser records.
Likewise, single-family housing starts since the first of the year on the Island are minimal, with Bradenton Beach reporting none, Holmes Beach reporting one, and Anna Maria reporting four.
While sales and construction are slow, hotel occupancy since the first of the year is higher than this time last year. In January and February, occupancy was 44.2 percent and 66.6 percent respectively, according to the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Silver Surf and Bridgewalk resorts in Bradenton Beach are doing "extremely well," said manager Barbara Rodocker, a member of the Manatee County Tourist Development Council.
"It’s better than last year," she said, adding that she expects about the same number of people through Easter. "Summer’s going to be maybe a little different than other years because of the economy, but those who are willing to stick in there and do what they need to do will be fine."