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Economic turnaround clues continue to surface

By Staff | Feb 25, 2015

Some 307,000 vehicles passed through causeway toll booths last January. That’s nearly 6 percent more than January 2014. PHOTO PROVIDED

It’s not your imagination.

Sanibel causeway vehicle traffic in January was up nearly 6 percent, or roughly 17,000 more vehicles passing toll booths from January 2014. In all, some 307,302 vehicles entered Sanibel this last January.

Drivers fanned out into Sanibel and Captiva, with merchants experiencing significant bumps in sales, according to chamber officials.

Causeway traffic numbers didn’t top a record 322,154 vehicles in 2001, but sure felt like it, at least in a random sampling of islanders.

A short commute last week to the dentist for Sanibel School parent Kim Kouril turned into a 55-minute ordeal, with Tarpon Bay and Periwinkle traffic snarled in the early afternoon, Kouril said.

Driving was “totally gridlocked from (Sanibel) school to the causeway,” Kouril said. “But this time of year will always be the worst.”

While standstill traffic was especially frustrating for islanders and workers, it was great news for business. Resort, condo and hotel vacancy in the last weeks has been almost non-existent, with shops and restaurants reporting brisk sales and long waiting lists, said Ric Base, president of the island’s chamber of commerce.

“Business is up across the board,” Base said. “Some are even reporting (sales) are up 20 percent — or more. It’s a combination of several things, but it has been wonderful for the islands’ economy.”

And if islanders are hoping for a break in the commute, forget it. Southwest Florida’s economy last year ended on a high note, with Lee County reporting bed taxes in November jumping 17 percent over the same period in 2013. The figure reflects a jump in tourism and business directed to southwest Florida, and equates to millions in revenue or investments, with Sanibel and Captiva representing a large slice of that pie, according to the county. And Florida this year could surpass 100 million visitors, a record, state tourism officials are reporting.

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

Some credit the buzz in Sanibel and Captiva as a healing national economy, lower gas, the deep freeze in northern climes.

But it’s also the lure of the islands. Captiva is regularly rated as one of the world’s top destinations. Sports Illustrated recently ran an issue featuring women athletes in Captiva for its swimsuit cover.

But other factors are at play, according to data collected by a consumer research firm. Sanibel is rated as a top 10 safe city in Florida, according to figures published by ValuePenguin. The study mirrors crime data released by the FBI, ValuePenguin’s Brian Quinn said.

“Our hope is that these reports can highlight which cities and towns are doing an exceptional job in providing their residents with a safe place to live,” Quinn said of the 224 Florida cities analyzed by the firm.

Sanibel ranked as the eighth safest Florida city, he said. The ValuePenguin report lists Sanibel as sixth safest for cities under 20,000 residents. Marco Island placed a couple of notches higher on the list. Cape Coral was named as a top three in safety for cities over 45,000, according to the firm’s figures.

ValuePenguin’s research on safe cities is available at www.valuepenguin.com/2014/12/safest-cities-florida-study.