State-of-the-art, spacious country town brings tourists



Like an unseen planet whose gravity affects a visible solar system, Babcock Ranch has indirectly helped improve Charlotte County’s top-of-the-charts tourist numbers and bed tax revenues in spite of seven months of coronavirus concerns.

Increasingly, people looking to take up new lives in this state-ofthe art, spacious country town come first for a look, bringing their money and hopes, and staying in the area, says Sean Doherty, director of the county’s Punta Gorda/ Englewood Beach Visitor & Convention Bureau.

That’s good for hotels, motels, restaurants and other service-sector businesses.

The astounding result — of that and other factors — puts Charlotte ahead of all its competitors for tourist dollars on the southwest coast, and probably most places in Florida, in a time when COVID-19 decimated the tourist and service industries in the region, the state and the nation.

The numbers in Charlotte went up so much in June, July and August of 2020, compared to the previous year’s numbers in those months, that Charlotte’s over-all rate for the year to date is better than break even, compared to 2019 — on the order of 3% higher. It’s not like that most other places.

Babcock Ranch welcomes folks from around the world. CHRIS TILLEY / BABCOCK RANCH TELEGRAPH

Babcock Ranch welcomes folks from around the world. CHRIS TILLEY / BABCOCK RANCH TELEGRAPH

“We’re optimistic we’ll continue the trend we’re on, although there are several factors,” Mr. Doherty said in a mid-October conversation. September numbers were not yet available.

“Everybody in the country and really around the world were hit hard by COVID in March, April and May,” he explained.

“But then June rolled around and tourist tax collections in Charlotte were up by 21%, versus the previous June — much more than we were expecting.”

That wasn’t happening other places.

“We thought we might be getting back to a break even or maybe a little up, but in July we were up by 44%. And when the August numbers came in, we were up by 42% over the previous August.”

Among the reasons for that counterintuitive explosion, he suggested, are these: Charlotte bills itself as an outdoor venue, with boating and fishing, hiking and exploring among the top draws — and those attractions became more potent as urban attractions went away, beginning in March.

“It was pent-up demand, nobody had been going anywhere, especially not to (urban destinations), and we promoted ourselves as an outdoor recreation destination,” Mr. Doherty noted.

Tourist tax dollars come from taxes on any kind of lodging, he explained. “So if you stay in a hotel, when you check out, there’s a 7% sales tax, in addition a bed tax. Most counties have it. Here, it’s 5%. Out of those 5 pennies on a dollar, 3 go to the operating budget, and the other two offset the (county’s) debt on the sports park where the Tampa Bay Rays do spring training. That’s $27 million, to be paid off in 2027.”

The tourists who brought their money and interest in the summer didn’t fit traditional demographics, either.

Traditionally, Mr. Doherty noted, the region is flooded with international as well as American visitors: Canadians and Germans, for example. Those markets have been steeply curtailed.

The tourists through the summer, however, have come from Florida and north-of-theborder sites at greater distance than once upon a time, because more people are driving, not flying.

“We contract with a research company. One thing we’ve learned from them: they’re saying the distance people are willing to drive (to vacation) has expanded significantly. If we were marketing to our drive market in the past, it might be 300 to 400 miles out of state. But now people are willing to drive 700 or 800 miles to their destinations,” said Mr. Dougherty.

“So that’s a market we hope will help mitigate losses we’ve gotten with the drop in Canadian visitors.”

In the case of both Europeans and Canadians, travel restrictions have deeply inhibited the markets, and that’s likely to affect what happens going forward into winter and the spring of 2021.

“The Canadian market is usually big for us during winter season,” Mr. Doherty said. “We don’t know how that will work out, this year. Before, the Canadians said, if you leave and come back, you can’t use the national health insurance if you have coronavirus. And now people can’t leave and come back by automobile (without losing benefits), but you can by air.”

Elsewhere, such as Germany, tourists to the United States can’t return without quarantining. Most won’t do that.

How long the Canadian policy will continue, and how it will affect visitors to Charlotte County, remains a question.

But Babcock Ranch does not remain a question.

“Ultimately it will be a very strong draw for us — it will likely have one or maybe even two hotels,” he said. “But now the draw is for people looking for a place to move to — not just retirees, but families with children. Right now the draw is real estate. But ultimately it will draw tourists, and Babcock Ranch will be a major player we want to partner with.”

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