Published September 15, 2010
Dan Clark gave up life as a banker on Dec. 31 to run a clothing and gift store in Mexico Beach, Fla.
So far, he's been hit with everything but a hurricane, beginning with a stalled economic recovery and one of the coldest Florida winters on record.
On some days, in January and February, his homey seaside town was even colder than Denver, Colo., where he'd given up his job at a major bank.
"I'm talking to former peers and they're saying, "You're down on the beach with a margarita," and I said, "No, it's freezing...The pipes are breaking around here."
The cold even put a chill on spring break. Then, just as Clark's sales at Beachwalk Clothing and Gifts began to warm, BP blew up its oil well on April 20.
BP's spewing pipe filled TV screens. Americans watched cleanup workers comb the shoreline in white, protective suits, picking up tar balls, and laying booms from boats. Thousands who'd planned Florida vacations canceled. But the big disaster, the one Americans feared would blacken the Florida Panhandle's pristine white sand, never came.
"I have described it to friends and family like I am in a bad movie watching my most precious place in the world threatened," Clark's wife, Jeri, emailed me on June 20. "The oil has not reached Mexico Beach yet, but is expected to by next week."
Mexico Beach is one of those places you know from family tradition or have arrived at by accident. Dan said his mother was from nearby Port St. Joe and took him to Mexico Beach as a boy.
Mexico Beach is geographically separated from the busier shores of Panama City by the massive Tyndall Air Force Base. It is also blissfully forsaken by high-rise developments and corporate chains. It is merely a place to rent a beach house, with family, and otherwise be left alone to miles of sand the color of baby powder.
Once the worst was over, Mexico Beach was spared what some predicted would be America's Chernobyl. Yet fears linger.
"The beaches, here, are clean," Dan would tell people calling from out of state. "It wasn't a cover-up or anything. The beaches really are clean."
I spent Labor Day weekend driving the Florida Panhandle Coast, stopping first at singer Jimmy Buffett's fabulous new Margaritaville Beach Hotel in Pensacola, and then other colorful places in Fort Walton Beach, Destin, Panama City Beach and finally Mexico Beach.
Along the way, I met oil spill cleanup workers and other witnesses to the occasional tar ball. Yet, the beaches remained as beautiful as advertised.
Days later, I met with Chris Hart, director of Florida's Office of Tourism and Economic Development, in the state capital city of Tallahassee, Fla.
"Florida beaches have been the victims of misperceptions," he said. "The Deep Water Horizon oil spill was so well publicized. Every pelican and every puddle of oil that could be found was shown on national and international media."
Hart said he's still getting calls from Germany about whether it's safe to go to Ft. Lauderdale and other cities nowhere near the Gulf Coast.
BP PLC (BP) gave Florida $25 million to get out the message that its beaches are clear. It also gave an additional $7 million to affected Florida counties. But Hart is asking for $43 million more.
"You've seen BP's own advertising," he said. "They clearly understand what it means to protect your brand and protect your image. Florida has got a brand, too...and it's clearly worth more than $32 million."
For now, Jeri splits her time between Mexico Beach and Denver, where she holds on to her media sales job. Dan says that while his gift shop has taken many hits throughout a difficult year, surprising spikes in traffic, here and there, may save it before the year is through.
After the wave of cancellations, many tourists saw opportunity when the oil spill never arrived, and came for cheap condo rentals, Dan said.
"We still face the fear of the unknown," Dan said. "Is there really something still out there? What about the dispersant chemicals? What are the long-term effects? Do we get a fall hurricane that pushes some ashore that we didn't expect?"
Questions like this could go on forever, but so could life in Mexico Beach.
"This is like heaven on earth for me," said Jeri. "Nothing makes me happier than putting my feet in the sand."
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at email@example.com or tellittoal.com)