There is a lot riding on the return of snowbirds this year as Southwest Florida continues to rebuild its storm-battered tourism business.
According to the Fort Myers News Press, some beach hotels damaged by Hurricane Charley are still out of action and two major resorts — South Seas Resort & Yacht Harbour on Captiva and Sanibel Harbour Resort & Spa at Punta Rassa — won’t open until next year.
Fewer accommodations for visitors make the snowbird segment even more important this season. Winter residents are a major contributor to the local economy because their spending helps buoy the slow season until tourism gets into high gear in January and February.
Many people are hoping winter residents will return early. So far, the signals are mixed.
“People that typically come back in September or October are postponing that trip until the beginning of November,” said Larry Schweber, Comcast Cable’s general manager for Southwest Florida.
Comcast can track its customers’ comings and goings through its vacation plan, which allows company to suspend service while they’re gone.
However, WCI Communities, developer of high-end homes and condos in Southwest Florida, already is seeing seasonal residents returning.
“We generally don’t see them until shortly after Thanksgiving,” said Pam Cox, WCI spokeswoman.
Lee County’s snowbird population, about 80,000, is estimated to be 16 percent of the permanent population of about 500,000.
One barometer of snowbirds’ clout is state sales tax collections. In Lee County, the total spiked up to more than $3.7 million in April; that is 53 percent higher than the $2.4 million collected in August 2003.
And this year, more than ever, locals look forward to the snowbird dollar.
“Snowbirds are our bread and butter,” said Will Prather, president of Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Fort Myers. He is fervently hoping a good flock of them return as usual, in early to mid-October.
The early signs, though, aren’t encouraging. The two or three part-time residents Prather has spoken with plan to wait until November.
Damage from Hurricane Charley could limit snowbird housing in and around Punta Gorda, said Capt. Ralph Allen, owner of King Fisher Fleet. He thinks many displaced part-timers will rent in neighboring counties so they can stay connected to their winter social network.
The U.S. Postal Service has yet to see much evidence of an early return.
“Our central forwarding unit manager has only seen a few (address change) cards coming through for people returning to the area,” spokeswoman Debra Mitchell said.
Island Realty Group manages condominiums for 70 associations, representing about 2,500 units on Sanibel and Captiva.
“About 25 percent (of the owners) came down, saw the damage was significant, became depressed and left. The others are waiting until things are fixed up,” owner Nick Jambeck said, noting one property owner is waiting until Easter.
On Fort Myers Beach, Indian Creek RV Resort “is pretty much a ghost town,” said activities coordinator Maribeth Jones. That is not unusual for this time of year, though.
Most people won’t come until after hurricane season ends Nov. 30, Jones said. The park is “completely booked,” with about 3,000 RVs and park models, from January through March.