Discovering the coast is clear

Published 8:06 pm Friday, July 30, 2010

Two times last weekend, we tasted the shrimp, and it was fine.

Four days on the coast in Franklin County, a long weekend absent from Bainbridge, found no oil slick in the seafood. Or on the beaches.

No doubt Apalachicola is one of the most picturesque villages along the coast, but we spent four days last weekend in another nearby getaway. Not quite as picturesque, but gaining in popularity.

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Most years, we plan a summer respite like most folks—Bed and Breakfasts in Maine and Massachusetts, in Savannah or Charleston, even one year all the way to Honolulu.

This year, we had planned a trip to Italy, but other projects took center stage, and we changed destinations to a quickie near home.

The coast needs us, we thought. Tourism is down, as vacationers shun Florida’s Panhandle and other coastal communities from Alabama to Louisiana.

So where did we go this year? Of all places—Carrabelle, Fla.

And it was delightful.

Now, Carrabelle may not be everyone’s exotic choice for a short four-day getaway, but we spent most of the time on top of a four-story condo, overlooking a very busy Carrabelle River, counting the oil-spill regattas coming in and out of the Gulf of Mexico.

Due to the threatened storm in the Gulf, the clean-up crews brought in most of the oil spill-detaining floating barriers, and piled them next to our building. It was quite a sight.

The beaches in and around Franklin County were fine. A boat trip to Dog Island and a review of St. George Island found them without damage.

The only thing hurting is tourism. And real estate prices.

You could feel it in both these towns—a normally bustling downtown Apalachicola was busy with through traffic on Highway 98, but shoppers in and out of the stores were scarce.

Lunch at the Owl Cafe was marvelous, but we dined alongside many empty tables on a day when the place should have been packed.

At dockside, the shrimp boats were “in.”

All along the Gulf coast, everything is hurting. Tourists have avoided the beaches, canceling vacations, conventions, stopped eating and buying seafood. Some economic experts have predicted $7.5 billion in losses coming in the next three years to the coastal communities. Restaurant associations have reported business down 25 percent, Alabama is expecting to lose half of its normal $1.7 billion beach business. Gulf shrimp prices have risen 30 percent and the price of fish is up 21 percent, oysters 18 percent. Plus there’s expected damage to all the seafood crops.

Our nearby Gulf beaches are relatively safe, with most of the oil spill damaging Louisiana coastlines and estuaries. The damage may be irreversible.

Yet economic damage to our area came earlier in real estate holdings with the banking crisis nearly two years ago. Effects of that disaster are expected to take as much as five years hence to recover, with tumbling values expected to be felt into next summer.

The usual “for sale” signs are ever-present along the coast. That’s nothing new. Everything and anything real estate has always been “for sale,” sky’s-the-limit pricing. Not so anymore. The sky has fallen. Pick a bargain property. Bankruptcies, foreclosures and bank closings are common.

Up until a few years ago, Carrabelle wasn’t much of a town. There’s been new construction, new marinas, new docks, new boat launch areas, new banks, a new library, a new bridge over the Carrabelle River, a restored hotel, and a lot of old salty residences along the back streets. Some things never change.

Yet you could feel the change. Several seafood restaurants were closed; there were empty boat slips galore. Real estate prices were in the tank along with empty and deteriorating retail buildings.

Carrabelle has all the makings of a first-class seaside community. A lot has been done to give it some character.

Coming home, we stopped at the famous Pouncy’s Restaurant in Panacea where the seafood was fine. The only oil was in the parking lot, dripping from hot vehicles at lunchtime.