Memorial Day marks the beginning of the all-important summer tourism season at the Jersey Shore, an area that’s still rebuilding after Sandy. The popular narrative from political leaders last summer — and again this summer — is that the shore is “open for business.” But a closer look reveals a more complicated and uneven picture.
Despite a recent Christie administration study that found tourism during 2013 broke previous revenue records, data and anecdotal reports suggest the tourism industry’s successes were mixed last year. While some areas fared relatively well, many other were not able to match the results of earlier years.
In the nine counties most damaged by Sandy, one-third had small drops in what tourists spent on things like lodging, food, and transportation. But the other two-thirds of counties saw modest gains, perhaps due in part to spending by out-of-state recovery workers.
“We actually saw some increase last year, particularly early in the year, in hotel revenue due to FEMA, Red Cross, and construction officials coming down,” said Brian Tyrrell, a professor of hospitality and tourism management at Richard Stockton College in Atlantic County.
The gains were also far from uniform. For example, in Beach Haven on Long Beach Island, Tyrrell said lodging revenue was down 18 percent from the previous year. And that doesn’t include weekly or seasonal rentals, which are popular with tourists.
Elaine Atlee, a real estate agent with Prudential Zack Shore Properties, said rentals on LBI last summer started slow but eventually picked up, which makes her optimistic about this season. Bookings have been strong so far.
“Overall, driving around, it really doesn’t look like there was a storm anymore,” she said. “Everything looks good, in order.”
Atlee said the housing inventory for rentals has been returning in waves: first the homes with minimal damage, and after them the ones that needed more work, but weren’t being lifted off the ground. Homes that had to be elevated have taken longer.
“There’s a handful that will be ready for next summer, not per se, this summer,” she said.
As a result of the storm, some people — including Atlee herself — have also chosen to rent out their homes for the first time to help offset construction and repair expenses. She said her house is already fully booked for the month of August.
A bit farther up the coast, Seaside Heights and Ortley Beach continue their long recovery after being among the New Jersey communities most devastated by Sandy. Homes have sat idle, waiting for federal recovery funds, and many businesses revealed that revenues last summer were down by a third or more. Both communities are holding out hope, though, that this year will be better.
Lucky Leo’s arcade on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights has been owned and operated by Steve Whalen’s family since 1953. Sandy destroyed the boardwalk around the arcade, and last summer Whalen said business was down about 20 percent.
To cap off the tepid season, four blocks of boardwalk erupted into raging flames last September. Fierce breezes sent fiery debris sailing down the boardwalk for blocks, including some that landed on the arcade’s brand new roof. The roof caught fire, and was a goner. But Whalen said that was barely a hiccup compared to the fallout from Sandy. At least his portion of the boardwalk was spared this time.
All along Seaside’s boardwalk, businesses are hoping for a comeback from last year’s dismal performance. At Midway Steak House -- where the lemonade is shaken, not stirred — cook Atemio Rees is worried that Memorial Day weekend will fall short of expectations. He said only a couple of rides were ready, and he didn’t know if people will come.
Town mayor Bill Akers promises that the rides will be ready. And he said beach badge sales figures as of this week show a strong season is in store.
“Right now, we’ve already exceeded $100,000 in beach badge sales, which is very good for us,” he said. “Last year at this time we had around 30 or 40 thousand sold.”
While many towns raced to repair their boardwalks and beaches after Sandy, that approach angered some local homeowners, who saw little progress in residential areas.
On the ocean block of Fielder Avenue in Ortley Beach, where every home sustained damage from Sandy, most have now either been torn down or are on their way to restoration. It took Barry and Ileana Ingram 15 months, but their home is whole again, raised up several feet. After waiting more than a year for Sandy aid, they finally received $110,000.
In order to afford flood insurance, the couple didn’t have health insurance. This winter, Barry contracted a rare form of pneumonia. When he went to the hospital, the doctors asked if he had eaten any weird fruits or had traveled out of the country within the past few years. He told them that he hadn’t, but he thinks he may have contracted something from all the mold, mildew, and sewage he was exposed to.
Now some of the government money meant to reimburse the Ingrams for contractor fees will help defray their $100,000 in medical expenses.
At the north end of the Jersey Shore in Sea Bright, there’s no boardwalk or carnival games. It’s more of a place that locals go to spend the day at the beach. But though it lacks the star power of places like Belmar and Seaside Heights, it’s still highly dependent on revenue from just a few summer months.
At Angler’s Marina, owner Fred Leonardis is hoping for business to pick up after a poor showing last year.
“It was off probably 40 percent by people who either totally lost their boat or lost their summer house or it’s just the economy,” he said, noting that pleasure boating tends to be one of the first casualties when people hit hard times. “So many of our customers took their boats home and said to me, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t come back next year,’” he added.
Leonardis said the New Jersey Marine Trade Association estimated that over 45,000 boats were totaled as a result of Sandy, and another 20,000 uninsured boat registrations were turned in after the storm. “When you take that out of a market, that’s a lot of boats,” he said. A few weeks ago, he only had one boat tied up in his 48 slips, but usually at this time of year he’d have about 20.
He said he needs things to get better so he can recoup some of the money he and his wife spent out of their own pockets to do all the repairs. And taking a loan from a bank isn’t really possible, he said, since he doesn’t have flood insurance for his business.
“You can’t raise this concrete building, so that means I’ve got to get insurance where it’s possible to have 4 feet of water again. The price for that kind of insurance is outrageous.”
Just down the street on Ocean Avenue in Sea Bright’s downtown, crews were busy painting storefronts, getting ready for Memorial Day weekend. Michelle McMullen recently reopened her homemade ice cream shop, “Gracie and the Dudes,” but business so far has been slower than she’s ever experienced, even in the dead of winter.
“Once customers leave and start going somewhere else, it becomes a habit. I think that’s what we’re seeing now, here a little bit, even since we’ve reopened,” she said. “People got used to going to their other sushi place or the other pizza place, the other ice cream place, and now we have to kind of retrain them that we’re back, and to come back into Sea Bright.” She’s hopeful, though, that things will improve once paving crews finish repairing Sea Bright’s parking lot.
Another sign of hope that this summer will be better than last is the number of beach badge sales. In 2013, the borough sold about half as many tags as it would in a normal year, but this spring, preseason sales were even higher than they were before the storm.
“It’s going to be a long road before you can say Sea Bright is 100 percent recovered from Sandy,” said Dina Long, the borough’s mayor, “but I think if you look at what’s happened this year, it’s very encouraging. We added back $20 million in taxable ratables, so that is a huge impact in terms of our municipal budget and our financial recovery.”
“We’re not out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination,” she added. “We still had to rely on an Essential Services Grant from the state to balance our budget this year, but hopefully by next year we’ll be well-positioned to stand on our own feet.”
At Northshore, a high-end clothing shop that was destroyed in the storm, owner Brian George agreed that things are coming along, slowly but surely.
“You had to be here to see what happened to this town. There was a war zone,” he said. “Cynics come into town and they go, ‘Well, this place is boarded up, this place is boarded up,’ but you have to realize what it was like! I mean, we’ve made such remarkable progress.”
He said he’s extremely positive going into the summer, and he’s uplifted by the news that his business was recently approved for a low-interest loan from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. The funding will allow him to add an addition to his building for the women’s clothing department. He hopes to start construction as soon as possible and have it ready by July 4th.
Now, after all the preparations they’ve made for Memorial Day and the summer season, businesses and local officials in Sea Bright and other communities along the Jersey shore are just keeping their fingers crossed that visitors actually show up. “We need a hot, dry summer, and we need people to come to town,” one shop owner said, laughing nervously. “Otherwise, it’s not going to be good.”
Tracey Samuelson reports for WHYY/NewsWorks, a partner of NJ Spotlight.
Janet Babin covers economic development for NJ Spotlight partner WNYC.