July 21, 2008

Work Gets in the Way of Beach Vendors

By Anita Lee, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

Jul. 21--Beach vendors said business is unlikely to rebound for another three to five years, not because of high gas prices, but because post-Katrina issues continue to keep tourists away.

Business is better than it was in the summer of 2007, they agree, but still slow since the 2005 hurricane, said Jet Blast owner Duke Middleton.

"The repair service is the only thing keeping us going," said Middleton, whose Gulfport company also repairs Jet Skis, motorcycles and four-wheelers.

Only one of Middleton's four vending spots is open this summer because of construction along the seawall and U.S. 90. Middleton was recently notified that repairs also would begin to the boardwalk nearest his one location just east of the Gulfport Harbor. The wooden boardwalk is being replaced with concrete.

Middleton said he doesn't understand why the work is being done at the height of tourist season rather than in the winter.

The Coast also has fewer hotel rooms and other amenities, including two water parks Katrina destroyed.

Lower beach traffic exacerbates the situation. Middleton was getting 10 to 12 customers a day, rather than the usual 50, who wanted to go para-sailing. When his insurance came up for renewal, he decided to close it down for the summer.

In Biloxi, Laurie Stoll of Southaven said her family had hoped to find more to do. She and her husband enjoy the casinos, but brought their teens to the beach this weekend. They couldn't find a hotel room in Florida on Saturday, so drove to Biloxi.

"We're having a very good time here," Stoll said. "If they had more services available, we would be more likely to come back. There's nothing to eat or drink out here."

Jet Ski prices also have gone up because gasoline is so high. Still, plenty of beachgoers were willing Sunday to spend $100 or more an hour on a ride. Biloxi vendor Hayes Bolton delivered gas cans holding $292 worth of fuel to his Sky & Ski business.

"Our costs for gas are draining us," he said.

Ironically, gas prices help, too. Bolton believes more tourists are saving on gasoline by stopping here instead of driving to Alabama and Florida.


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Copyright (c) 2008, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

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