Post-hurricane, tourism takes a hit in downtown St. Augustine

A week after Hurricane Irma pelted St. Augustine, crowds have been slow to return to St. George Street, the mainline of tourism activity downtown.

 

On Sunday, visitors could be seen strolling the pedestrian thoroughfare, but at a much quieter and leisurely pace.

“It’s been very slow,” said Paige Stajdel, a manager with the Savannah Sweets candy store. “On top of it being September, which is always less busy, it’s just a double whammy with the storm. I’m sure it will come back eventually, though. Last year, after the hurricane, people came out and showed their support.”

Mary Gabain, an associate with Vino Del-Grotto Winery, agreed the economic rebound following Hurricane Matthew last year seemed to happen more quickly, with out-of-towners and locals alike flocking to St. Augustine to support hometown businesses.

“I just think the storm affected more people this time around,” Gabin said.

The stress of Irma wasn’t without its impact on Michael Allen and his girlfriend, Liz Wagner, but that’s exactly why they decided on a weekend getaway to St. Augustine, one of their favorite towns in Florida. The couple, who is from Melbourne, was sitting on a bench outside The Spice & Tea Exchange on Hypolita Street on Sunday, soaking up the afternoon sun.

“We wanted to just get away from everything,” said Allen.

For Caty Burke, it was concern about how her mother fared after the storm that brought her and her husband from Woodbridge, Virginia, to St. Augustine. The pair flew in Thursday at a discounted rate to check on Burke’s mother, who lives in town (she’s doing OK), and planned on staying through Monday.

Burke said she actually preferred the town less crowded like this.

“It’s nice and it’s good weather,” she said.

But the thinner volume of foot traffic wasn’t good news for merchants like Gabin, who rely on sales to line their pockets.

“We’re losing money because we’re not getting the business because of the hurricane,” Gabin said. “So yeah, it is hurting us.”

Taking a break from manning her booth for Old Town Trolley Tours, sales associate Missie Geralds said while this month is typically considered the “offseason” for tourism in St. Augustine, the town usually relies on locals to pick up some of that slack.

“Especially on weekends, we see a lot of locals, but they’re just not here,” said Geralds. “Probably because they’re at home working on their (storm-damaged) houses.”

Geralds added several of the attractions Trolley Tours sells tickets to — including the Fountain of Youth and The Colonial Quarter — were still closed this week due to cleanup following the hurricane.

“It’s a little lighter,” acknowledged Paul Labare, manager of the St. George Inn.

Labare said he was about half full in terms of occupancy at the inn, which is about normal for this time of year. While he had had some cancellations this week, Labare added, “There are other people who are going back toward the Keys and are stopping here for a couple of days.”

Max Mason, general manager of The Colonial Quarter, which runs the Bull & Crown Publick House and Taberna de Caballo, said, “Our restaurants haven’t been as strong. On St. George, we rely on our tourists. People are starting to come back, but they’re only slowly trickling back.”

Colonial Oak Music Park, one of the venues which hosted free concerts as part of this weekend’s Sing Out Loud festival, was well attended Friday and Saturday, Mason said. While the makeup of the crowd at the live music events Colonial Oak puts on is usually about 75 percent tourists and 25 percent locals, “I would say it was about 90 percent local for this.”

Ryan Murphy, director of cultural events for St. Johns County, agreed. Murphy said Sing Out Loud showcases drew good turnout over the weekend, especially events in Lincolnville and at The Colonial Oak Music Park.

“It was mostly people from here in town,” Murphy said. “And they were coming up to me and saying, ‘Thank you for doing this, I needed to come here and take a breath, and enjoy this.’”

As Tiffany Gross watched her 2-year-old daughter Elise dance to a bluegrass band at Colonial Oak on Sunday afternoon, she said she had been disappointed the first dates of Sing Out Loud had been canceled, but was happy to come out for the entertainment this weekend.

“We love music and my little one loves being outside,” said Gross, a resident of St. Augustine. “And supporting the town and local businesses is very important.”

 

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