Island businessman shouts out good news

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Beachgoers and a couple of paddleboarders relax Jan. 9 on the lee side of a beach renourishment groin at Cortez Beach in Bradenton Beach. As singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett would say, “The weather is here, wish you were beautiful.” Islander Photo: Kathy Prucnell

Business-owner Joe Varner is spreading the good word about paradise on Anna Maria Island.

“This unnecessary, elongated, negative perception of red tide has got to stop,” Varner told The Islander Jan. 14. “When does this stop?”

Varner owns Anna Maria Vacations, 3018 Ave. C, Holmes Beach, where he manages 250 vacation homes. He’s ready and willing to spread the word that things are back to normal on Anna Maria Island.

“Things are just fine here,” Varner said on a sunny day from his Holmes Beach office Jan. 14.

“I’ve got 38 full-time employees. I’m trying to keep everybody here employed. Go listen to the people on the phone out there talking to people calling in. They don’t understand red tide. Not at all.”

“Every 10-15 years it seems we get a good punch in the gut with red tide. But things are just fine here. That’s what we need to say now.

That’s the message we have to get out. I’m very vested in this island, as are many others. We have to make people understand it’s fine to come to Anna Maria Island.”

In August 2018, red tide hit the island.

In the six months that followed, there were periods when red tide blooms were intense, periods when it diminished and times when it all but disappeared. And, during that time, there was widespread coverage of red tide — some from professional news outlets and a lot circulated on social media.

Now, Varner said, “people all over think we have piles of dead fish everywhere. Social media is not helping.”

Yet the water is aqua and the beaches are pristine.

Seasonal visitors are returning to Anna Maria Island and the beaches were busy with vacationers over the Christmas and New Years holidays.

But Varner says his bookings remain below last year’s levels. His spring and summer reservations are down from a year ago and he puts the blame for the false impression of red tide across the states and Europe on the internet and cable and network TV.

Varner says his bookings have seen a “measurable drop-off” because the news cycle hasn’t changed.

“People still don’t believe things are back to normal at the island. They are calling every day asking questions about red tide,” he said.

Varner said some people have rebooked properties and were happy to find Anna Maria Island back to normal.

“Those who are coming are having a great time. It’s beautiful here, the beach is beautiful, they’re enjoying themselves,” he said.

Tourist season is settling in on Anna Maria Island, with the snowbirds returning and short-term vacationers filling accommodations.

“It’s gorgeous over here on the beach this morning,” Katy Demick told The Islander Jan 18. “Simply beautiful.”

Demick, assistant general manager for Anna Maria Island Resorts, including Tortuga, Tradewinds, Tropic Isle and Seaside resorts in Bradenton Beach, said vacation bookings are improving.

And callers are no longer asking about red tide, Demick said.

“We have definitely picked up,” she observed.

In Anna Maria, Lindsey Leech at the Duncan Real Estate and Vacation Rentals office on Pine Avenue, said, “We’re not getting many calls about red tide anymore. We had a fair amount of earlier cancellations but they all seemed to be medical- or health-related. It’s aging issues, not red tide.”

Leech said March bookings are looking good, and the company is continuing to run last-minute specials to fill vacancies.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report for Jan. 16 bore out what islanders already knew. No red tide was found in Manatee County in samples from five areas, including Coquina Beach in Bradenton Beach, the north tip of Anna Maria at Bean Point and Palma Sola Bay.

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