Beach Towns Wait Nervously for Summer Flocks

Summertime is here and residents of some beach towns are feeling nervous about their economies. Rehoboth Beach, Del., is one spot where there's anxiety about how the economic downturn is going to affect summer tourism.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day, I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, the next primary is in Puerto Rico. We're going to hear from a political analyst there who says it's not clear that Senator Hillary Clinton is going to do well. But first, the average price of gas is approaching four dollars a gallon on this Memorial Day. It's expected to keep on climbing. That coupled with a soft economy is worrying businesses that depend on summer tourists. We sent reporter Joel Rose to the beach recently for the latest instalment in our series, The Bottom Line.

JOEL ROSE: It's sunny but cool today in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, with a stiff wind off the ocean. There are almost as many seagulls on the boardwalk as tourists. In a few weeks, this boardwalk will be mobbed, or, at least, that's what the merchants here are hoping. One of those merchants is Marie Kilpatrick(ph). She manages Dolle's Candyland, the corner of Rehoboth Avenue and the boardwalk.

Ms. MARIE KILPATRICK (Merchant, Dolle's Candyland): We're not as busy. We're hoping this weekend they're saying it's going to really be beautiful. So I'm trying to hope, and keep our fingers crossed.

ROSE: Kilpatrick has worked at Dolle's for 10 years. She says this is the slowest she's ever seen it. Kilpatrick says some of her customers are buying smaller boxes of caramel corn fudge and saltwater toffee than they normally do. And she's worried that's a sign of things to come.

Ms. KILPATRICK: If they come down, it may be just for a day or two with the gas prices. And they're going to watch their money. I can see that. But, you know, people want caramel corn, people want toffee, they're going to come down here regardless.

Mr. KOSTAS SARCOLIS (Manager, Robin Hood Restaurant): This might be the most challenging time in the last 15 years.

ROSE: Kostas Sarcolis (ph) manages the Robin Hood Restaurant about half a block from the boardwalk. He says shop owners in town are nervous that rising gas prices will mean fewer beachgoers this summer.

Mr. SARCOLIS: It's a little daunting to think about, you know, four dollar gas. And it's scary.

ROSE: Everybody's holding their breath trying to see what it means.

Mr. SARCOLIS: Yeah, yeah.

ROSE: The story is similar a few miles up the coast in Lewes, Delaware. Betsy Reimer(ph) runs the local Chamber of Commerce.

Ms. BETSY REIMER (Lewes Chamber of Commerce): For the businesses, summertime is for a lot of them, make or break. We are a tank of gas drive from big, metropolitan areas. The Philly area, Baltimore, Washington area. And we're just hoping that they'll say, well, instead of driving maybe four hours to another beach destination, we'll do the two hour drive to this area.

ROSE: One hotel here isn't just hoping, the Greystone Inn Bed and Breakfast is offering to buy 20 dollars worth of gas for anyone who stays at least two nights.

Mr. MITCH MYERS (Proprietor, Greystone Inn Bed & Breakfast): The astute traveler who wants to go to the beach is going to go anyhow. But if there's any way that I can entice them, that's what I'll do.

ROSE: Still, proprietor Mitch Myers(ph) says B&B's all over Delaware are bracing for an off year.

Mr. MYERS: Everyone thinks we're going to have probably a 10 to 15 percent less in terms of people and overnight stays on what we had last year. That's what I really think. I hope I'm wrong.

(Soundbite of loudspeaker announcement)

Unidentified Announcer: May I have you attention please...

ROSE: High gas prices haven't stopped the traveler on this ferry boat from Delaware to New Jersey though some like Judy Balser(ph) of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, took a bus to the Jersey shore instead of driving.

Ms. JUDY BALSER (Holidaymaker): All that travel, is all included in a package, so cheaper than buying gas for a car. We have done this before. But now it's even a better deal because now we think, how could we afford to do it with the price of gas?

ROSE: Several other travellers told me they're planning shorter trips this summer to save money including Tera Pazulo(ph) of Wakefield, Rhode Island.

Ms. TERA PAZULO (Holidaymaker): We have a camper so we probably won't do the, you know, the real far trips. We've gone down south to Carolina, but we won't go that far this year.

ROSE: Another couple who won't be going very far this summer is Linda and Bill Natun(ph). They're on their way back to Vermont from Washington, D.C.

Ms. LYNDA NATUN (Holidaymaker): You end up talking to friends who are planning on staying fairly close to home, and just doing very small trips. Like if they live in Fairfax County, they're going to West Virginia, and stay fairly close instead of branching out further.

ROSE: The Natuns say they're waiting to see what gas prices look like in the fall before they plan any more trips of their own. Back in Rehoboth Beach, the kitchen at Gus and Gus Place(ph) is cranking up french fries for Memorial Day crowds.

Mr. GUS SFALLAS (Proprietor Gus and Gus Place): I'm Gus. I've been here 53 years in this corner. I see all kinds. Bad and good. Most of us good.

ROSE: Gus Sfallas (ph) has been selling burgers, hot dogs, and fries on the boardwalk since 1955. Gus Sfallas says he's paying more for food this summer, but he's doing his best not to raise prices.

Mr. SFALLAS: Because a lot of people they're working. They're coming down for vacation. They pay the motels and everything else. It's expensive for them. We try the best we can to keep everybody happy.

ROSE: Sfallas has seen economic slowdowns in this Delaware beach town before, and he expects to weather this one, too. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

CHADWICK: More in a moment on Day to Day from NPR News.

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