ANNA MARIA – Despite red tide in area waters since early August, tourism grew in Manatee County during the fiscal year October 2017 through September 2018, according to the county’s tourism consultant.
“If you consider the challenges we have had, and to some extent, still have, the data for the fiscal year really are impressive,” Walter Klages, of Research Data Services, told the Manatee County Tourist Development Council on Monday, Dec. 10.
Visitation grew by 1.6 percent over the last fiscal year to 724,200 visitors, “a significant number,” Klages said, producing an economic impact near $977 million.
Occupancy was down nearly 14 percent in August from August 2017 and down nearly 22 percent in September from September 2017, but red tide was not the only reason, he said, pointing out an increase in available vacation rentals.
“Looking ahead, we have challenges with the environment,” Klages said. “The tide has a significant impact, but looking down the road, I think our markets are strong and next year we will see significant growth again. I don’t think the stigma is going to carry very significantly into the season.”
“This red tide has caused a blip,” TDC Chair Carol Whitmore said, adding that her home’s canal had dead fish in it three weeks ago, but no longer has an odor.
“Our Island is starting to fill up, and that’s a good thing,” she said.
Anna Maria City Pier progress
Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy updated council members on the progress of the construction of the new Anna Maria City Pier; the historic pier was demolished after damage done by Hurricane Irma in 2017.
The city has a contract to build the pier platform, partially funded by up to $1.5 million in tourist tax funds, he said, adding that materials will be barged across Tampa Bay, alleviating road congestion on Anna Maria Island.
The platform is contracted for completion by Aug. 26, 2019, Murphy said, with the first pilings scheduled to be driven next month.
The restaurant and bait shop are scheduled to be completed by January 2021; an unavoidable delay resulted from permitting problems with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA, he said.
New tourism initiatives
Several initiatives are underway to promote more than just Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key beaches to visitors.
Former Bond girl and star of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” Jane Seymour is scheduled to have a cookoff with TDC member and Island restaurateur Ed Chiles next month while visiting the area for an undisclosed Riverwalk event, said Elliott Falcione, director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB).
Four “unplugged” concerts, including one by folk singer Judy Collins, are in the planning stages at The Center of Anna Maria Island in Anna Maria and the Manatee Performing Arts Center in Bradenton, he said. The TDC voted to recommend that Manatee County commissioners approve the plan on Tuesday, Dec. 18.
The council also approved a recommendation to the commission that $50,000 in tourist taxes be allocated to a Women’s Entrepreneurial Empowerment Summit at the Bradenton Area Convention Center or IMG Academy.
“We are starting to brand the Bradenton Area as a viable conference destination,” Falcione said.
Sean Walter, the CVB’s sports commissioner, reported that in fiscal year 2017-18, the county hosted more than 90 events in 16 sports, ranging from Frisbee to hockey.
Sports further diversifies the destination so that environmental impacts from red tide are not as devastating, Falcione said.
“What a way to finish the year,” Chiles said, citing the new developments, including news that Allegiant Air will add nine new nonstop destinations at Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport.
“It’s been tough but there is reason to be optimistic,” he said. “We could use a little good news out here, and we have gotten a lot of great news today.”