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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 3, 2004 17 years ago

Charley Blows into Sarasota

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Hotel rooms and rental cars and trucks have been hard to come by. The economic windfall is just beginning for local businesses.

Charley Blows into Sarasota

Hotel rooms and rental cars and trucks have been hard to come by. The economic windfall is just beginning for local businesses.

By Christopher DiUrso

Contributing Writer

How do you boost a local economy? As macabre and insensitive as it sounds, thereis nothing like a disaster.

The winds of Hurricane Charley, while missing almost all of Sarasota County, have created a windfall for some segments of the Sarasota economy. Hotels, rental truck and car agencies, caterers and other businesses are reporting dramatic surges in sales over the past three weeks in the first of two to three waves of expected increased business.

Of the nearly dozen hotels surveyed, all reported 100% occupancy, or nearly so, for the past three weeks, with all housing the armies of relief workers. Hotel managers say they expect full-house conditions to continue at least through the end of September, normally the slowest period of the year. Consider:

i Richard Bradshaw, general manager of the Comfort Inn at Interstate 75 and Clark Road, says all 63 rooms are occupied through the first week of September with hurricane relief workers. He says he committed to closing the hotel to any new reservations through the end of September in the event rooms are needed for additional relief workers or for those still without power from the hurricane.

i Relief workers have occupied the 110 rooms at the Hampton Inn at 881 Venetia Bay Blvd. in Venice since Aug. 14, the day after Hurricane Charley. The hotel is booked through the second week of September, with most guests coming from Florida Power & Light and Nationwide Insurance.

i The Hampton Inn at I-75 and Bee Ridge Road in Sarasota has had 121 rooms booked since Charley hit and expects that to continue through mid-September, according to manager Jared Riccio.

Even the regionis Class A resort hotels, including the Longboat Key Club, Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota and Radisson Lido Beach Resort, report higher occupancy rates due to housing relief workers. Days after the hurricane, with its rooms full, managers at the Ritz-Carlton converted a fitness room into hotel rooms to accommodate American Red Cross relief workers.

iWe see so many people who come in the door who need rooms,i says Julia Samblanet, general manager of the AmericInn Hotel at Fruitville Road and I-75. Samblanet says her 111-room hotel, which typically operates at 70% occupancy, has been full since the storm. iItis a very heart-rending situation. Iive never seen anything like this before,i she says.

AmericInn has housed relief workers from FPL, the Red Cross, Nationwide Insurance and Citizens Fidelity, the state-run insurer of last resort. As soon as one group checks out, another checks in. Citizens and an affiliated insurance company rented five rooms and a meeting room and set up a claims processing center before locating space in Fort Myers two weeks ago. iItis like a revolving door,i Samulet says.

Car and truck rental agencies report similar conditions. Alamo, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz and U-Haul have rented nearly all available vehicles and are only now beginning to see some limited availability.

Commercial real estate broker Jon Kleiber says Sarasotais commercial leasing business has surged as well. Charlotte County business owners have been leasing whatever warehouse and office space they can find on short terms, particularly along the interstate. Kleiber says the spillover has spread as far as southern Manatee County, too.

Prepared food is in demand as well. Celebrations!, a Sarasota-based catering firm owned by CafE LiEurope, has been serving 7,200 meals a day to FPLis power line relief crews out of FPLis North Port site. CafE LiEurope General Manager Bill Herlihy said the caterer has brought in about 40 additional employees, on top of its normal 20-employee staff, from as far away as Boston and Washington, D.C.

Starting at 4 a.m. and working each day until 10 p.m., Celebrations! employees typically serve a breakfast of 10 cases of eggs, 15 cases of hash browns, 15 cases of grits, 3,000 biscuits, 3,000 bottles of juice, 5,000 sausages, 10 cases of ground sausage, 15 cases of corned beef, 1,000 cartons of milk and 1,500 cups of coffee.

Other caterers have pitched in with donations. Mortonis Catering donated lasagna and salads to the American Red Cross and other volunteers. Mortonis employees also took 100 pounds of ground beef, 200 hot dogs and bakery goods to the Port Charlotte Fire Department. Michaelis on East catering donated food to volunteers and provided restaurant equipment to caterers and restaurants in Charlotte County.

With power restored in most of the affected areas of Charlotte County, the effects on Sarasota Countyis economy are gradually changing. The first wave of emergency relief workers is giving way to the next wave of the recovery: rebuilding. This should be a boon for contractors, telephone and cable installers, carpet layers and home furnishings wholesalers and retailers.

Steve Dinicolantonio, owner of Longboat Key-based West Florida Contractors, says he has estimated 10 new jobs worth $700,000, has five more lined up and new calls arriving daily. At Charles Roy Roofing, office manager Karon Lamb says the company is not giving any new estimates for at least a month and that contracts are booked for the next two months.

Lamb says the Catholic Diocese of Venice is the contractoris largest client now. iI feel bad that we canit do more jobs immediately,i she says, but the company has more business than it can handle.

Several Sarasota County contractors surveyed say they havenit experienced a surge in orders yet. iMany people donit want to do anything until they talk to their insurance companies, so there is not a lot of production in the office or the field right now,i says Ronald Gallien, owner of Delta Southern Inc.

But itis coming. In fact, Brian Pruett, president of Sarasota-based Pruett Builders Inc., remembers the effects of Hurricane Andrew. In the two years after Andrew, about 30,000 moved to Broward County and another 30,000 moved elsewhere in Florida. Pruett says his company built homes for some of those transplants. And he expects the same to occur as a result of Hurricane Charley.

iPeople understood that it would be two to three years to rebuild the area because it was like a war zone,i Pruett says. So they moved. Adds Pruett: iItis really sad.i

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