Oil spill a drain on county purses that's slippery to quantify
By Zachary S. Fagenson
Pinning down the cost to Miami-Dade County of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is a slippery task.
"I would tell you that that is a very imperfect science," said Rolando Aedo, senior vice president of marketing and tourism for the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. "You're trying to measure something that hasn't happened."
The most elusive figures are those related to travelers who planned a trip here but changed their minds after the spill.
The most pronounced financial impact of the disaster has been the dark cloud it cast over the state, including Miami, in the eyes of foreign visitors.
Along with that is the cost municipalities incurred putting an emergency response plan on paper, according to Miami Beach Visitor and Convention Authority Chair Elsie Howard.
"This is unique and a one-off, not like a hurricane preparedness plan, and entire new sets of protocol had to be established," she said. "All of us put a lot of time into preparedness and thought processes of what to do if it came and how to respond to people who were questioning what to do if it came.
"The good news is once you've developed a plan you have it for the future," she added.
Additionally, Miami-Dade County may get even less money from Tallahassee due to the spill's impact on vacation hubs in North Florida and the panhandle.
"We're waiting for the panhandle's numbers because obviously that will put pressure on the State of Florida's tax collections," said J. Antonio Villamil, dean of St. Thomas University's business school and principal of the Washington Economics Group. "If that happens, Miami-Dade County's fiscal support from the state may suffer somewhat."
But in reviewing tourist tax collections, "I think a lot of the initial hysteria was a bit exaggerated," he added. "We're in pretty good shape, especially with international tourism being so strong too."
Tourist tax collections, though not yet available for the spill's final month of July, are up over last year's, which were weighed down by continued economic turmoil.
Convention Development Tax collections during April, May and June were up 7%, 17.3% and 18.2% respectively over the same months in 2009.
The 2% food and beverage tax collected from hotels during those three months, as tens of thousands of barrels leaked onto the Gulf floor, grew by 8%, 13.7% and 5.3%.
Resort tax collections — which like the food and beverage tax exclude Miami Beach, Bal Harbour and Surfside — were up 7.6%, 13.7% and 16.8% for April, May and June.
Meanwhile, Overall, Miami-Dade taxable sales, a measure of spending, rose 1.9% in April from April 2009, according to the legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research.
But the most difficult figure to ascertain is the number, and economic impact, of people who were considering a trip to Miami but decided against it due to fear of the spill.
"We know there's a brand impact," Mr. Aedo said. "Half of our business is overseas, which struggled even more [with visitors] not knowing the geography between Miami and Pensacola.
The "word Miami and oil spill was used more often than oil spill and Pensacola," he added.
But individual and family travelers have more flexibility than group travel planners.
"If I'm that meeting planner and making a decision that's going to impact hundreds of people, then I will be ultra-conservative," Mr. Aedo said. "If there's any concern my group is going to be impacted by a tar ball, let's not take" the trip.
And despite the fact that international travelers may not know which parts of the state are affected by the spill, they're still a reliable leg for the industry to stand on.
"Because of the influence of the international market, what I do think impacts us is… a lot of international travelers, much more than international group business," he added.
To capitalize on that strong segment, the bureau is using the $1.25 million it received in oil spill aid from British Petroleum, or BP, to advertise in international markets like Germany and the United Kingdom, nations in which Mr. Aedo said the bureau hasn't been able to market in years.
The Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, along with the City of Miami Beach, was to host a meeting with local governments and federal agencies and private businesses that might have a hand in a cleanup but have put those plans on hold since the apparent capping of the well last month.