Little more than two months after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the Jersey Shore, representatives of businesses along the coastline – both those impacted by the storm and those that were untouched – told legislators Monday that they are already opening their doors for business but fear no one will walk through.
Without a major marketing campaign, they said, images distributed nationally of the heavily damaged shoreline will drive tourists to other Atlantic Coast destinations.
The state needs to spread the word to would-be visitors, business representatives from five Shore counties said during testimony before the Assembly Tourism and the Arts Committee.
They noted that big stretches of the Shore – especially Cape May and Atlantic counties to the south – escaped the storm relatively unscathed, with much of the damage confined to northern coastal counties of Monmouth and Ocean.
“The national media has planted in their minds that (the entire Jersey Shore) is gone,” said Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce. “We have to be sensitive to the people who have sustained the loss but we cannot create a greater loss. We need supplemental marketing money” to bolster and promote tourism businesses that survived the storm.
The hurricane, which hit Oct. 29-30, damaged or destroyed 346,000 homes and displaced 116,000 residents at some point. A total of 185,000 businesses were also affected. It resulted in about $11.7 billion in economic losses, according to a report issued Monday by the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.
Tourism officials from five counties testified at Monday’s hearing, telling the committee that a public-relations push designed to bring people to New Jersey should be viewed as an investment in the larger economy.
A report from the state Division of Travel and Tourism found that the tourism industry accounted for about $38 billion in economic activity in New Jersey in 2011 and that it is directly responsible for 312,000 jobs, with another 486,000 created in related industries. Overall, that represents about one in 10 jobs in the state. The industry also generates $4.4 billion in state and local taxes and another $4.8 billion in federal taxes.
“The $38 billion tourism industry — $19 billion of it comes from four coastal counties,” Clark said. “Tourism is not an expenditure. It is a revenue generator for the state.”
Clark said that every dollar spent to increase tourism to the state provides a $36 return to the overall economy, with the impact being felt not just by hotels and restaurants, but other businesses, as well.
That is why, she said, the state needs to do what it can to ensure that the 2013 tourism season does not become another victim of the hurricane.
“If we do not save our 2013 tourism season, we will lose more than we already lost,” she said.
Assemblyman Matthew Milam (D-Cape May), chairman of the tourism committee, agreed.
“We have to continue on with that revenue stream,” he said. “We can’t have a 2013 where we say we only took in $28 billion instead of the $39 billion. And we don’t want them to go to Ocean City, Md., instead of our Shore towns and say they like it better.”
One of the first steps, tourism officials said, is to move Assembly Bill 3630. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) would provide $20 million to the state Department of State to fund the advertising and promotion of New Jersey’s travel and tourism industry.
“The Jersey Shore is the identity of what we are in this state,” said Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association,. “We need to negate all of this negative publicity. We lose market share every day. We need to keep our visitors and make sure they come back to the Jersey Shore this summer.”
Committee members from both parties agreed that the tourism industry needs the state’s help. Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Essex), who was subbing for the absent Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), said he was prepared to sign on as a co-sponsor to the legislation in an effort to speed its approval.
“We need to get this message out,” he said. “It comes down to the advertising dollars. We need to spend money to advertise. We need a strong campaign and we need to tell the reality. We have to be careful not to overpromise. We have two strong counties, based on the testimony, and this is an investment. But the $20 million will come back to us.”
“Not all of the New Jersey coast was devastated,” Clark said. “In Cape May County, 50 or 60 miles south of where the storm hit, many of our businesses were open the week after the storm.”
Even the hard-hit barrier island of Long Beach Island, which accounts for about $1.2 million in tourism revenue, is getting back to normal after being underwater during the hurricane, said Lori Pepenella, destination marketing director for the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce.
The businesses on the island, most of which are local “mom-and-pop shops,” she said, took it upon themselves to rebuild quickly. Many borrowed money in anticipation of aid and insurance payments, knowing they needed to be open before the season.
“We are ready to promote our season,” she said. “The businesses have taken it upon themselves to make it happen. All we can ask from this committee is that there be a statewide ad campaign.”
Assemblyman Chris A. Brown (R-Atlantic) said Jenkinson’s Amusements in Point Pleasant, which saw much of its boardwalk and park destroyed by the storm, has announced that it plans to reopen in February and other businesses say they will be ready before the season officially opens in May.
“If you are going to take something from this hearing,” he said. “You need to take this: New Jersey is open for business. We are ready.”