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Savannah businesses rebounding, helping others after Irma

While Hurricane Irma’s damage in downtown wasn’t as severe as what Hurricane Matthew brought last October, it’s likely to have about the same economic impact on the city’s hospitality and small business industry, but hospitality officials are still working to calculate the loss.

The biggest issue this year in factoring the loss is figuring out which hotels remained open and which closed, said Michael Owens, president and CEO of the Tourism Leadership Council.

“In Matthew almost everybody shut down and it was pretty easy to calculate who was shut down. In Irma we had folks who shut down, folks who didn’t shut down, we have folks who shut down their operations externally, but then took in staff,” he said.

“We had folks that took in regular visitors, but didn’t charge them and everybody stayed in the hotel for free and we saw that during Matthew, too.”

Matthew dealt a blow of about $3.8 million to downtown hotels last year over four and a half days, and the city lost nearly $10 million in visitor spending, which is only factored from those who stay in downtown hotels and accounts for about 40 percent of revenue in the downtown area.

Owens said so far, hotels are reporting lower revenue numbers compared to this time last year and taking a little longer to reach normal occupancy levels, which typically range around 98 percent this time of year.

“After the storm was over, after the visitors have come back it’s been about a 20 percent decrease (in revenue) year over year,” he said.

“… (Irma) hit our biggest feeder markets. Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Atlanta are among our biggest feeder markets and they’re not coming, they’re at home taking care of their stuff, so we’re seeing that recovery dipping a little more than we saw in Matthew.”

Returning to normal

At least one major conference that was scheduled for the weekend after Irma hit went off without incident and brought about 300 American Public Human Services Association members to the Hyatt Regency Savannah for their national training conference.

“I took a photo yesterday flying into the airport and sent it to a couple of our members and said, ‘Savannah is bright green and ready to go,’”Donna Jarvis-Miller, director of membership operations &events for the organization, told the Savannah Morning News last week.

“You can see some water lines, but for the most part you wouldn’t know (there had been a storm).”

Jarvis-Miller began tracking Irma after Labor Day and started following local and state emergency groups on social media to stay up to date on the latest storm developments and praised both Visit Savannah and the Hyatt staff for making sure the conference went ahead as planned.

“…Once Irma took that wild turn west, based on conversations with Visit Savannah and the Hyatt, felt like there was no reason we couldn’t go forward,” she said.

The group had planned to hold several events in the Harborside Ballroom, which is at street level on River Street, but due to the storm surge from the Savannah River the space wasn’t usable. Jarvis-Miller said the Hyatt was able to accommodate the group without hesitation.

“We’re going to use their beautiful River Lounge for our opening reception and most of our members won’t know the difference… It’s that kind of partnership that as a meeting professional we really appreciate between our venues and the bureaus that we work with,” she said.

While she’s received training to deal with events like Irma possibly impacting conferences it was the first time Jarvis-Miller has had to put those training skills into action.

“This was putting it a little close. Monitoring it and making critical decisions that both impact the association as well as knowing our decisions were going to impact the city had we had to cancel,” she said.

“We’re planning to come again in 2019. It’s becoming a favorite spot for our members. It’s a fun city with lots to do… It’s fun to come back to city that’s constantly evolving and changing,” she said.

For some locally owned businesses it has taken a little longer to return to normal operations. For most shops, closing their doors can result in a monetary loss that can be felt for months.

“Irma cost us over half a million dollars in sales, which is a massive hit for us as a family owned and operated company,”said Chelsea Williams of Live Oak Restaurant Group, which operates restaurants from River Street to the southside and Wilimington Island.

“From a business standpoint, we are still feeling the negative effects from the hurricane and resulting evacuation, as are our hourly waged and tipped employees. We’ve done our best to provide our staff with information on how to access federal and state unemployment and disaster assistance, but it’s undoubtedly a challenging time for them.”

Williams said the restaurants experienced mild damage and next week they plan to help out those who weren’t as fortunate by teaming up with the United Way of the Coastal Empire for a “Totally in for Tybee” fundraiser at Tubby’s Tank House in Thunderbolt and Molly McGuire’s on Wilmington Island on Wednesday.

Downtown, Mamie Ruth and M.Liz Studios and Boutique at 107 W. Liberty St., will also be lending a helping hand to island flood victims by hosting a fundraiser on Thursday from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the shop. The event will also serve as a launch party for designer Emily Bargeron’s kids clothing line, Wishing on Weeds.

“One of our owners/designers Mary Liz Craft lives on Tybee Island and had to be out of her house before the rest of us did. Luckily her home wasn’t damaged but we wanted to promote Emily’s new children’s line in conjunction with an adorable charity kid’s fashion show to help out our island neighbors who lost everything to water,” said director of communications, Katie Hurley.

“We will be showing the new line and be donating 15 percent of proceeds from everything sold in the store to victims.”

Aside from fundraisers, helping restaurants and other small businesses get back on their feet is simple, Owens said.

“Come out, enjoy downtown, be a visitor in your own town. This is your town, enjoy it,” he said.

More Info

Breakout Box: 

If you go

What: Totally in for Tybee fundraiser

Where: Tubby’s Tank House Tunderbolt, 2909 River Dr.; Molly McGuire’s, 216 Johnny Mercer Blvd.

When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday

If you go

What: Fashion show & fundraiser for Tybee flood victims

Where: Mamie Ruth & M.Liz Studios and Boutique, 107 W. Liberty St.

When: 5-8:30 p.m. Thursday

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