Summer Shore season rated fair
Come Labor Day, gone is the summer tourism season of 2013, the one that held so much hope for visitors, businesses, and officials along the Jersey Shore after the region was ravaged 10 months ago by Sandy, probably the worst natural disaster to strike the area in modern history.
The final grade? Fair.
Visitors - whether day trippers, weekend warriors, or those who plan vacations of weeks or months - look for long stretches of perfect beach days. Up and down the coast, they want sunny, hot - not too humid - weather, and nice, warm, clean surf.
This year they certainly got some of that (except for June with its record rainfall and July with pockets of wet weather). August was pretty sunny, although sans the usual dog days of extreme heat and humidity, but by then, the college kids are heading back to campus and mothers turn their attention to getting the younger ones back to school.
And dead and dying dolphins - at last count about 70 of them - started showing up on beaches from Monmouth to Cape May Counties, worrying some vacationers about what could be causing the mysterious malady.
Plus, all season, the specter of Sandy and what visitors might find when they arrived, especially in the hardest-hit areas of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, may have still loomed large despite a $25 million tourism advertising campaign paid for with federal and state money.
That could account for a drop of as much as 25 percent in the number of beach tags sold this summer in Ocean County, and a 10 percent decline in sales in Monmouth County. Officials in Atlantic and Cape May Counties said beach towns there reported beach tag numbers close to last year's sales.
Toms River business administrator Paul Shives said it was no shock the numbers were down so dramatically there because the storm did considerable damage in the township's Ortley Beach section, destroying some 300 houses.
By contrast, in Avalon, Cape May County, where damage to houses and the beachfront was minimal, officials saw a slight increase in beach tag sales.
And if dolphins or weather, and certainly high gas prices and a still flagging regional economy, played a role in this summer's success or failure, it remains to be seen - at least officially.
In the meantime, even Gov. Christie, who has been on beaches, boardwalks, and the airwaves since before Memorial Day, brandishing his "Stronger than the Storm" message to entice visitors to return to the Shore, admits the summer of '13 probably isn't going to break any records.
"Listen, it's not perfect. It's not as good as we'd like it to be, but it's a lot better than it was in November. And a lot better than a lot of people thought it was going to be," Christie said last week in North Wildwood.
"It was one of those roller-coaster summers," said Wes Kazmarck, president of the Ocean City Boardwalk Merchants Association, who with his family owns several businesses in the Cape May County resort.
"One minute it looked like it was going to be a washout, and the next we were breaking records," said Kazmarck, who owns the Surf Mall in the 1100 block of the boardwalk. "I actually had weeks that I had my worst day in business and then I had my best day ever . . . broke records in the same stretch of days."
Kazmarck said that he and fellow merchants rode out a soggy - and somewhat less than gangbuster - June but that the sun came out on the Fourth of July weekend and it looked as though the summer would be great. Then buyers seemed to ease off purchasing the usual T-shirts, trinket jewelry, incense, flip-flops, and other popular items.
That easing may be a reflection of a bigger economic picture, experts said.
Last year, tourism revenue inched toward a record-breaking $40 billion in New Jersey. Tourism is the state's third-largest industry.
That number boded well for state coffers, which depend on sales and income taxes and other revenue to keep the engine greased, plus the jobs it provides for some 800,000 New Jersey residents year-round.
But when Sandy made landfall Oct. 29 near Brigantine, causing more than $38 billion in damage, officials worried the effect could cripple state tourism, an industry that had taken some knocks since the 2008 recession and that has since been making a slow but steady climb back.
"The state had a lot of work to do to shift the perception of damage and the perception of disruption at the Shore after Sandy," said Joseph Seneca, an economics professor at Rutgers University and coauthor of a macroeconomic analysis, "The Economic and Fiscal Impacts of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey."
"And I think, for the most part, it was as successful as it could be. But there are aspects and segments of both the visitor and local population still dealing with the aftereffects of the storm," Seneca said.
Seneca found that in the immediate short term since the storm, things like income, sales, economic output, and state income in the form of sales tax revenue have suffered. Lost revenue from businesses and personal income affected by the storm will never be made up, he said.
Seneca said there could also be a loss of property tax collection, as property owners demand reductions in their bills on property rendered unusable after Sandy.
There was also a loss of capital stock - housing, commercial buildings, infrastructure, and inventories that has to be factored into the equation. And losses on vacation properties of second-home owners weren't covered by Federal Emergency Management Agency insurance.
"Not all the losses were covered by FEMA or insurance, and that means there was a real loss of wealth by the owners of this property," Seneca said. "Especially individual homeowners . . . this will affect their future spending decisions on all levels."
A positive boomerang effect is the spur of construction activity as FEMA and other insurance money trickles into the economy.
But that money doesn't equate to spending on vacations, restaurants, retail, said Diane F. Wieland, director of tourism for Cape May County.
"And that's where the problem lies for a lot of small businesses in the region that have had to adjust the way they do business," Wieland said. "That means a B&B or a hotel in Cape May that used to require a two- to three-night minimum is now being more flexible to fill up those nights. People want rentals with at least a small kitchen so they can survive on pizza and burgers and maybe only treat themselves to a restaurant meal one or two nights of their weeklong stay to save money."
The final verdict among a Labor Day survey conducted by her office among Shore businesses: a solid 3.5 out of a possible 5, she said.
"It was good to fair for this summer, nothing more," Wieland said.
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Jersey Shore blog, "Downashore," at inquirer.com/downashore.