In a Gulf Shores store topped by a big purple octopus, shoppers can buy souvenirs, then flip-flop across the highway to the beach.
Spring-breakers arriving this month will find Gulf Coast businesses well stocked with beach, fishing and golfing gear. But businesses are sweating a slump in condominium sales and insurance woes.
It's a "buyers' market" for pricey condos and homes, according to experts in resort real estate. Auctioneers have been busy in this speculative property market that rides the economic tides - and tropical surges - that take prices up and down.
The spring-break tourist trade, however, remains lucrative and dependable.
"Visitors will be paying more for accommodations than two years ago, but not as much as one may think," says Marie Curren, a spokeswoman for major landlord Brett/Robinson Vacation Rentals. "Our rates reflect a five percent increase from 2006."
She said a family of four, which typically rents a two-bedroom Gulf-front condo for a week, can expect to pay between $178-$207 per night, plus tax and cleaning fee.
It pays to shop around. There are minimum stay requirements and special offers.
Boardwalk benches lining the Gulf Shores beachfront already are occupied by tourists whose numbers are expected to swell in the next few weeks with spring-breakers.
The annual escape to the South's sandy resorts begins in early March as universities in northern states take spring recess. A list maintained by merchants shows Indiana and Illinois students are expected to be among the first to arrive.
By Easter, the tourist trade on the Gulf Coast is expected to ring up millions of dollars in profits even before the peak summer season starts.
At least that's the hope for business owners who say the signs of past hurricane damage have been cleared away.
Last spring - March through May - 255,820 tourists stayed overnight in paid accommodations in Gulf Shores and neighboring Orange Beach. They spent $110.3 million.
Not included in the count: Thousands more who were day-trippers or bunked with friends and relatives.
About 21 percent of those in paid accommodations were first-time visitors and 88 percent said they planned to return, according to data from Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Bureau spokesman Mike Foster said the average vacation party spent $1,508 during their stay including $622 on accommodations, $442 on food and entertainment, $275 on groceries and retail and the remainder on miscellaneous.
A growing population of retirees and other permanent residents also fuels the coastal economy. The combined Gulf Shores and Orange Beach population since 1990 has more than doubled to 12,318 permanent residents, according to U.S. Census figures for 2005.
Gulf Shores restaurant owner Eddie Spence said the condominiums and hotels have recovered from Hurricane Ivan, although all the old-favorite restaurants wrecked by the 2004 storm haven't returned.
Filling the dining gap are many familiar fast-food franchises.
Hurricane Katrina spared Alabama's beaches in 2005, giving property owners extra time to complete Ivan repairs.
"We look totally free of the `h' word," said Spence, seated at the bar of his Mikee's seafood and oyster bar near the beach.
Fallout from Ivan and Katrina, however, includes slumping condo sales as insurance rates have soared on the Gulf Coast. State Farm, Alabama's largest home insurer, recently announced plans not to renew about 2,600 policyholders, mainly condos on the coast.
But spring-breakers unconcerned about the insurance crisis will be looking for suntan oil and rooms to rent.
"Beachgoers are coming back as they know we are really back in top form at the beach," said Bill Bender of Bender Realty Inc., which manages more than 200 rental condos in Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan.
The spring-break market differs from long-term rentals, said Derrick Gainey, a real estate broker at Custom Property Management in nearby Pensacola, Fla.
Gainey, an area spokesman for the National Association of Residential Property Managers, said he's "optimistic about the rental market getting to a catch up this year" in the Florida Panhandle, which was slammed by Ivan.
He said long-term rents in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties soared after Ivan, but, he said, there's now a surplus of rental properties in that area.
"Taxes and insurance have gone up substantially, cutting into cash flow," he said.
Last year, storm-repair activities were still under way at Gulf Shores, but real estate agents say bookings for spring break are running at impressive pre-Ivan levels. It was a banner year for real estate until Ivan hit in September 2004.
"Our online reservations in January are up 78 percent over those in January 2006," said Sarah Kuzma, the spokeswoman for Meyer Real Estate, which represents 2000 vacation rental properties, with approximately 1700 condominiums in 169 buildings and 300 beach homes.
"We still anticipate last-minute requests because of the nature of travelers time constraints and the advantage of assessing availability online by the consumer," she said. "So basically we are seeing early activity and we still expect the last-minute rush of requests."
Restaurant owner Spence said he expects a "great spring break" followed by a "big summer" for Gulf Shores. He said returning visitors can expect to see "beautiful white beaches, the town starting to thrive again, back on its feet. . ..Very few signs that remind you of the hurricane anymore."
Down the street from Mikee's, store manager John Phillips at Surf Style, which sells beach gear and clothing, said Gulf Shores is "just getting bigger." He compared it to Destin, Fla.
Phillips also expects more spring-breakers this year because of the availability of rooms.
"Last year, a lot of condos weren't open," said Phillips.
Besides beachfront developments, some major retail and entertainment projects have been completed on the Intracoastal Waterway and along Alabama 59, the often crowded highway linking Interstate 10 to Gulf Shores.
Paul and Karrie Ronan, owners of Gulf Shores Souvenirs & Gifts - the store with a purple octopus on its roof - said availability of insurance and seasonal workers remain as problems for the area.
Seasonal workers come from Russia, South Africa, Chile, Jamaica, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, said Olga Kozlova, a Russian who works as a sales clerk for the Ronans.
But finding affordable housing for them is a challenge.
"We're cautiously optimistic about the (spring) season," said Karrie Ronan.
"Last year was all right, not fantastic," Paul Ronan said. "We were still in (hurricane) recovery mode."
He said the area still needs "restaurants and night life."
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