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Date of Issue: September 20, 2007

Late school startup rings Island bells

About six years ago, the Grinch stole summer vacation from Anna Maria Island.

Actually, it wasn’t summer vacation that the Grinch stole, it was the four weeks in August when Florida families traditionally headed to the beach - and Anna Maria Island - for a vacation.

In 2000, however, the good times for Florida beach communities in August ended abruptly as the Florida Legislature mandated that public schools would begin the first week of August in order to complete the semester by the Christmas break.

This past year, however, Tallahassee lawmakers responded to some intense lobbying by Florida’s tourism industry and pushed the start date for school back to later in August, giving Florida families and students two more weeks of summer vacation.

It now appears the Grinch who stole summer vacation has given it back.

The results of those extra two weeks of summer vacation were noticeable on Anna Maria Island last month. Island accommodations and restaurants were jammed during August, signifying a return of the summer vacationers who had all but disappeared from Anna Maria Island.

“It’s been just great,” said Susan Estler of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

While August occupancy figures for Island and mainland accommodations were unavailable, Estler was confident that tourism for August 2007 was up from the same time last year.

“We’ve heard from so many members that their business did great all through August, and many vacationers were families from Florida,” said Estler.

“August is a month in which, traditionally, Florida families would head to the beach,” she continued. “When school started the first week of August, families couldn’t make those beach vacation plans. We hope now that the start date remains in the latter part of August.

Island restaurant and accommodation owners hope the same thing.

“This past August was our best August ever,” said Ed Chiles of the Sandbar Restaurant in Anna Maria, the BeachHouse in Bradenton Beach and the Mar Vista on Longboat Key.

“We’ve been much busier than expected. I haven’t seen any slowdown in traffic.

That was a sentiment echoed by Angela Rodocker of the BridgeWalk Resort and Sun House Restaurant in Bradenton Beach.

“August was awesome. The restaurant was well above last year’s figures. It was the best-ever August at the restaurant and the resort was up from last August. And we saw a lot of families,” she said.

Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce executive director Mary Ann Brockman said her members were just ecstatic about August

“It was phenomenal. We had no hurricanes, no red tide, school started later and we’ve done a lot of advertising. Everything just came together,” Brockman observed

In addition, Brockman said the Island Trolley - a free service at least through 2008 - is fast becoming an attraction in its own right.

“It takes so many cars off the roads and people come out here just to take a ride on the trolley. They end up eating a meal, buying gifts and spending money. It’s a great attraction.”

In fact, August was such a hot month for tourism, Stanley Riggs at Holiday RV Park in Cortez said it was the best August the park has ever had.

“We were swamped all month with people,” he said.

“Our occupancy was up 40 percent from August of last year, and I noticed a lot of visitors were families from Lakeland. We haven’t seen those people in years.”

Riggs said he also had a lot of European visitors who rented an RV for the entire month.

“We were incredibly surprised at the increase in business. We have the only RV park with a boat ramp in the area and a lot of people from Lakeland brought their boats with them. It was just a great month.”

Riggs said his occupancy was nearly 85 percent for August, not far from the 100 percent occupancy his 112 spaces will generate from February to April.

And the August boom in tourism may be a prelude to a fantastic winter season.

“I’m already taking reservations for this winter,” said an enthusiastic Riggs. “It’s nice to have some good news about the tourism industry.”

Even some in the retail industry noticed an upswing in sales in August.

Sandy Mattick of the Pine Avenue General Store in Anna Maria said last month was the best August ever for the store since she and her family purchased the property in 2003.

“We were extremely busy. It was a good month and there was a lot of walk-in traffic,” she noted.

Now, if summer vacation could just be extended through September.