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Local economy ends on strong note, expectations high for 2015

By Staff | Jan 14, 2015

Island merchant Dan Schuyler credits new collections and a rebounding US economy for a double-digit boost in his firm’s sales in the last two years. CRAIG GARRETT

Southwest Florida’s economy last year ended with a bang, with Lee County reporting bed taxes in November jumping 17 percent over the same period in 2013. The figure equates to millions in revenue or investments, with Sanibel and Captiva representing a large slice of that pie, according to the county.

Other good news abounded, including big jumps in passenger traffic at Southwest Florida International Airport, more flights from key markets like Canada and Europe, other anecdotal narratives about standing-room restaurants, stores, streets and resorts in the islands.

So, what’s ahead? Depends on who gets asked, but most are looking to keep pace or surpass 2014, especially with a December that surprised even veteran islanders. All-day traffic and long lines at shops, beaches and cafes were the buzz in the islands. Long-timers couldn’t recall a busier holiday in Sanibel and Captiva in more than a decade, attributing lower gas and factors like a healthier US economy. Holiday vacancy rates in the islands, for instance, were nearly nil.

“Everybody is talking about” a positive 2015, said Dick Muench, a long-time island and the owner of the Periwinkle Park & Campground in Sanibel. “The fishing guides are saying there’s no off-season now. It’s fantastic, that’s what I’m hearing.”

Others are as buoyant.

Dan Schuyler at Lily & Co. Jewelers reported double-digit sales increases in each of the last two years. He said new “Sea the Islands” and Atocha shipwreck collections, along with the addition of a master jeweler and customized work, as contributing to his firm’s boosted sales.

“No one single thing is driving growth,” Schuyler said. “It’s Lily & Co. outreach, sponsorships and events but, obviously, the economy is contributing to our significant growth. We’re feeling very good about 2015.”

Some caution is expected, however. Trouble overseas, a return to higher gas and interest rates, natural/manmade disasters, each could cause rain on the sunny parade.

Still, the optimism is hard to overlook, especially as more of the world focuses on southwest Florida as a destination. One of the keys to ensuring a continuation will be resort/hoteliers not necessarily adding room or even expanding, but upgrading accommodations, keeping up with other Florida hotspots like Key West and Orlando, said John Lai, general manager of the Inns of Sanibel and the incoming president of the Lee County Hotel Association.

Lai also credits the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau (VCB) with strong outreach and marketing campaigns to attract new visitors and business. Lee County resort/hotel occupancy, for example, was up more than 5 percent over 2013, and the VCB also coordinated the Island Hopper Songwriter Fest in Captiva and Fort Myers Beach, among its many successes.

The VCB, Lai said, “is doing a tremendous job.”