No Hurricane Florence, but plenty on impact on local businesses

rarriaza@vagazette.com

Fears around the impact of Hurricane Florence in the Historic Triangle have subsided, but some area businesses have only begun to recover from the loss in foot traffic and sales last week.

As early as Monday of last week, the then-Category 4 Hurricane Florence was forecasted to bring strong winds and days of sustained rainfall to the area. But by Friday, the hurricane had been downgraded to a Category 1 storm and its course had shifted southward away from Greater Williamsburg.

The state spent $41 million in taxpayer dollars over two weeks as it dispatched and provided rescue teams, shelter staff, nurses and other emergency personnel in anticipation of the storm, according to a Daily Press report. Around $32 million was set aside for the two state-managed hurricane shelters at the College of William and Mary and Christopher Newport University, while an estimated $20 million went toward the deployment of two urban search-and-rescue task forces, according to the report.

As it became clear that the deadly storm would not have a significant local impact, area residents returned to their lives, but local restaurants, hotels and attractions still felt the sting.

Colonial Williamsburg Foundation spokesman Joseph Straw said the historic attraction saw a drop in visitation last week following its decision to cancel or postpone weekend programs, including its Constitution Day concert, which was scheduled for Saturday.

“Colonial Williamsburg saw an anticipated drop in guest traffic last week due to Hurricane Florence, in particular its forecasted track, which threatened a far greater impact on our area than materialized,” Straw wrote in a statement to the Gazette.

Some local restaurateurs said they saw foot traffic slow to a crawl during the initial forecast, but that customers began to venture out as the weather improved; others struggled through the weekend.

According to Mickey Chohany, owner of Second Street American Bistro and public affairs correspondent for the Williamsburg Area Restaurant Association, safety concerns from area residents combined with the drop in tourism from popular weekend events being postponed or cancelled hurt the local restaurant industry across the board.

Jacquelyn Lieber, general manager at Revolution Golf and Grille on High Street, said that last week started off slower than usual for the restaurant and virtual golf attraction. Foot traffic showed no signs of improving as the week progressed, and she said that by the middle of the week, sales were far below expectations.

“We noticed (the downturn in traffic), especially on Wednesday,” she said. “Our Wednesday is typically pretty steady and we hardly had anyone come through, and we were very concerned because I think what a lot of people noticed was school being cancelled, so everyone just bunkered down and stayed inside.”

Lieber estimates sales at the restaurant took about a 60 percent drop when compared to Wednesday from the previous week. The restaurant’s 23-person staff was also down two members after they evacuated their homes following Gov. Ralph Northam’s mandatory evacuation of Zone A Tuesday.

Lieber said Revolution offered drink and food specials along with indoor games on Friday and Saturday, which helped the restaurant recoup some of its losses. As a result of the hurricane party event, the restaurant increased sales by 50 percent on both Friday and Saturday when compared to the previous week, Lieber said.

“With the hurricane party, we had noticed our Thursday sales increased and Friday and Saturday were one of our larger nights in the past three months,” she said.

Others said they have yet to recover from the hit they took last week and over the weekend.

Dean Canavos, owner of the Capitol Pancake House on Capitol Landing Road, wrote in an email that his loss in sales last weekend was partly due to the cancellation of popular weekend events, such as the home football game scheduled for Saturday between William and Mary and Elon University.

“Business was steady through the week, but Saturday and Sunday were total flops,” Canavos wrote. “(We) had mostly locals, but even they had stocked up at home in preparation for the storm’s arrival, so they didn’t come as often. I only hope the locals don’t stay away this week using up their stored food.”

Stephen York, co-owner of The Whaling Company seafood restaurant, said the hurricane scare brought down foot traffic as much as 50 percent every day since last Wednesday when compared to revenue from the same timespan last year. Although he initially expected to see an increase in business from out-of-towners fleeing the storm to stay in Williamsburg, York said hotels near his restaurant lost most of their occupants by the weekend.

“It might as well have been a snow day in January for us,” he said. “I’m hoping that we’ll get back to some kind of normalcy today. All the way to Sunday was down for us.”

J.C. Pierce, owner of Pierce’s Pitt Bar-B-Que on East Rochambeau Drive, said his business fluctuated over the course of the week, but that overall sales were actually better than expected due to an influx of people from more affected areas staying at nearby hotels.

“Friday night we saw a huge increase in our dinner rush because people were trying to get away from Virginia Beach and the Carolinas and the hotels picked up, so it actually helped us,” Pierce said. “It’s a horrible way to get business, but (we) did.”

Although Pierce saw an increase in sales from hotel-goers, Bob Harris, interim executive director of the Williamsburg Tourism Council, said overall visitation was mixed last week.

Harris said conferences and tour groups scheduled for last weekend cancelled due to the weather, which hurt hotels across Williamsburg, James City and York. Local residents from more rural areas also booked rooms early in the week out of fear they would lose power, but as the forecast improved, many decided to cancel their reservations, Harris said.

Ron Kirkland, executive director of the Williamsburg Hotel & Motel Association, said local hoteliers saw a sizeable drop in their occupancy on what was expected to be a busy weekend. In addition to evacuees from the coast and the Carolinas staying in the area, hotels expected to be near full occupancy with visitors coming to Williamsburg for the William and Mary home football game along with the opening of Busch Gardens’ seasonal Howl-O-Scream event.

Both were postponed Saturday.

“Most of the hotels that I talked to were looking at 100 percent occupancy, and they ended up being at 50 percent or less,” Kirkland said. “It was supposed to be a good weekend, but Florence definitely had a big impact on that.”

Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.

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