SANIBEL, Fla. — Last September, Hurricane Ian flooded Sanibel Island with storm surge. Now, 10 months later, the island is trying to encourage Southwest Florida residents to return and enjoy access to local restaurants and attractions during the off-season as part of the “Savor the Shore” campaign.
In support of this campaign, the Lee County Board of Commissioners voted to waive tolls on the Sanibel Causeway starting this Sunday, and every Sunday for the next six weeks.
"I can come to Sanibel on a Sunday and there are no additional fees for me to go out and do what I want to do,” said John Lai, the President of the Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce. “Which is support my neighborhood, support my friends and family that work in these industries."
Lai said the businesses on Sanibel and Captiva have come a long way since the storm, with nearly 120 of the 600 chamber members back open.
"These restaurants, these retailers worked very, very hard to get open very, very quickly,” said Lai. “And the entire goal behind that was to not only catch season, but to give the momentum to the island that desperately needed wins."
Tuesday, beachgoers on Sanibel responded positively about supporting the island's recovery, but raised the question: Is six days of waived tolls enough to spark people coming back?
"And not just for one day, but for a long period of time so people can actually enjoy the island and realize it's a place they want to come back to and invest in," said Bill Dieruf, a beachgoer who splits his time between Fort Myers and the Louisville area in Kentucky.
Dieruf also happens to be the former Mayor of Jeffersontown, Kentucky. He feels having the waiver on select days can send the wrong message.
"If you can get something out as grandiose as we want you to come no matter what day it is, no matter what time you get off,” said Dieruf. “It tells people that we want you to come. Not that we're just kinda thinking about it."
Fox 4 Meteorologist Andrew Shipley asked Lai about Dieruf's thoughts, as well as how much economic stimulus will come to the islands based on six days of toll relief.
"Looking at this holistically, we know that for the County and the City to give up even a day of tolls, it's tax dollars that the county and city desperately need,” said Lai. “So, it is very, very much a win-win... It is a great start in the right direction."
Lai said that one day of business, for example, could result in an extra $10,000 for a restaurant. He also said a big part of the island’s slow economy is hotel room inventory selling at 10% less than before Ian.
"When we talk about getting our residents and business owners that live and play in Lee, Collier and Charlotte to Sanibel-Captiva Islands, that's exactly why," said Lai.
The Chamber said even if it is not on Sanibel or Captiva, we are all still recovering from Hurricane Ian, and they encourage everyone to support our local businesses.