Crude Summer: Boca Grande, Fla.

Real estate practitioners and home owners in Boca Grande, Fla., located on Gasparilla Island, took matters into their own hands this summer. They took OSHA training, so if oil reached their shores, they could help.

September 1, 2010

Chances are low that oil will hit the Gasparilla Island community of Boca Grande, Fla. The Deepwater Horizon rig explosion was about 600 miles away, and the waters here are pristine. Still, this summer the U.S. Coast Guard met with community leaders to discuss the possibility of oil reaching the south end of the Florida peninsula. "If there is an impact, it will be very degraded tar balls," says Julieta Tucker, a media relations officer for the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command Florida post.

But real estate practitioner Kevin Hyde of Gasparilla Properties in Boca Grande isn’t taking any chances. On June 7, Hyde, along with 25 other residents of the southwest Florida island community, gathered in the Boca Grande Fire Station for a four-hour Occupational Safety & Health Administration–certified class on cleaning up hazardous materials. "We did this so we could take a leadership role in our community if we need to," says Hyde, a board member on the Boca Grande Chamber of Commerce. He wants his community to be ready if any oil comes its way.

Even tar balls are toxic to wildlife, Hyde says, and would deter vacationers. Gasparilla Island, a vacation-home paradise, thrives on eco-tourism. Boca Grande is nestled within preservation areas and state parks. On Gasparilla Island, white sand beaches and clear waters attract sailors, scuba divers, fishing enthusiasts, swimmers, and shellers. The region also is considered one of the best tarpon fishing spots in the world.

Even without oil present, there has been some economic fallout.

Kelly Reark, e-PRO, also with Gasparilla Properties, says she’s been fielding questions about oil from worried residents and vacationers. "We had one rental cancellation last week," she said in mid-June, "with [the threat of] oil as the reason. Wages from rental income obviously have already been affected. Then there’s the fishing industry, tourism, sporting events—so much of the commerce is waterfront. And that doesn’t even touch on the ecological effects [if the oil does come ashore]."

Boca Grande is located in Lee County, which encompasses Fort Myers and the adjacent barrier islands. Foreclosures in the county peaked at 14,686 in the fourth quarter of 2008, but the market has been on a rebound since. For January through most of June, sales volume in the area was up 20 percent from the year earlier, with homes selling for an average of $775,710.

"This is a clear indication of how the market is improving," Hyde says.

His concern now is that the oil spill—and more specifically, the false perception that the entire Gulf is contaminated—could upset the turnaround.

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