Hurricane-damaged Sanibel and Captiva businesses ask: Where are our SBA loans?

Sanibel and Captiva have long been dependable economic engines for southwest Florida, vacation destinations with national renown. Until Hurricane Ian slammed on the brakes.

After the storm, messages of support abounded. Businesses were told to apply to the Small Business Administration for aid to help them recover. In Southwest Florida, hundreds did. Yet three months later, the money isn’t flowing.

“We’ve not heard of one member on-island ‒ and we’ve asked ‒ that has received an SBA loan yet,” said John Lai, CEO of the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce.

And it’s not just Sanibel and Captiva, says Lai, who’s also regional director of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. On a recent call with the regional chamber alliance, “Fort Myers, Cape Coral and Fort Myers Beach all reported exactly the same thing: None of their members has received a penny from SBA … It is a very large issue.”

A call to Carol Wilkerson, SBA press director, was not immediately returned.

A group of cyclists takes off from the Sanibel Island chamber of Commerce Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.
A group of cyclists takes off from the Sanibel Island chamber of Commerce Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.

At this rate, Lai says, the islands will only be at a quarter of their capacity next year.

By 2024, more than a full year after Ian hit, “our projections are that we’ll have approximately between 20 and 25% of our hotel room inventory back on Sanibel," Lai said.

"That’s concerning, obviously, being largely a tourism-driven economy, but that number is based purely on the speed at which FEMA and insurance are moving at currently," Lai said. "So it’s not unreasonable and it’s not something we hope is true, but based on what we’re seeing right now, with the speed at which we can get contractors and goods, after we get a decision from FEMA and insurance, we’re looking at 24 months (so) my concern is we’ll be forgotten from an advocacy perspective because federal and state dollars are still very much in need to help our businesses survive and help our residents rebuild.”

And an open causeway is key to that, he says.

More:Return to Sanibel Island after Ian: Smashed homes, slick ooze, and wondering how to rebuild

More:Sanibel reality check: Displaced businesses, orphaned trombones and debris fields

Repairs to the islands’ three-mile-long causeway were faster than most expected; it opened to helpers in early October, to residents Oct. 21 and to the public the first week of January.

Yet that most recent opening was contentious.

Many business owners were happy to see potential customers, but many residents didn’t relish the potential congestion and staring strangers, though what some feared would be a flood hasn’t materialized, said Sanibel Police Chief William Dalton.

“During regular season, we get anywhere from 10,000 to 13,000 cars a day to cross the causeway and yesterday (Wednesday), it just hit 4,000, so there’s just not a lot of folks coming out here right now.”

Plus, with the islands still raw, many residents didn’t feel ready to welcome mainlanders, many with little to do on the island but gape.

Few hotels, shops or restaurants are open, nor are the famed J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel’s shell museum, or the island’s historic village. And the shoreline is firmly closed to nonresidents, says Chief Dalton.

“That’s why (the opening) is premature, in my opinion,” says resident Susan Paolantonio. “With the beaches closed, I don’t know why anybody would be there.” Plus, she says, extra vehicles clog roads already crowded with debris and repair workers, especially when they slow to a crawl so passengers can snap disaster porn.

“The traffic this week was just awful – people driving around slow, taking pictures of piles of garbage,” Paolantonio said. “Those cars really don’t have to be there … I’m not being a snob and I don’t want to close off our island, but we just needed a little more time.”

It’s not that Paolantonio doesn’t understand the need for an economic jump-start – “I used to own a business in Sarasota so I get it – revenue means something” – but it burdens already overloaded residents, she says.

Lai, though, wants to keep things moving.

“We absolutely needed the contractors, the adjusters and the appraisers here to move this ball forward – to take the next step.” Plus, with the chamber advocating for a large hurricane relief package for both residents and businesses, “the chances of us getting the funding decrease significantly if we did not open the bridge,” Lai said. “And thirdly, it is impossible for us to ask our business community – which is a big part of our community – to reopen if we’re only going to try to serve the less than 1,000 fulltime residents currently on the island.”

Most importantly, he says: “We have a governor who pushed very hard to reopen this bridge and it was done with taxpayer dollars,” he said. “This is not a political statement – it just is that we could not openly accept the (money) and be appreciative of it if we were going to not let the taxpayers come over the bridge."

The Santiva General Store sits flattened after Hurricane Ian destroyed it more than three months ago on Sanibel Island on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.
The Santiva General Store sits flattened after Hurricane Ian destroyed it more than three months ago on Sanibel Island on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023.

Lai is confident Sanibel won’t be forgotten.

“Our water is beautiful, and tourism is dying to get back. The demand will be there when we reopen and I think the natural beauty of Southwest Florida will continue to rebound,” he said. ”That drive over the causeway, as different as it is, is still very relaxing and therapeutic, and the island has a lot to offer, even in its current state, but it’s not what you remember from last year.”

Visitors won’t be returning to the same island – at least not right away, he says.

Lee Health’s island offices are once again seeing patients. Students are expected to return to the Sanibel School later this month. Bailey’s announced plans to rebuild. Waterfront dining is back on both islands ‒ Captiva’s ‘Tween Waters and Sanibel’s Gramma Dot’s – and tourism-focused businesses are reopening.

“The islands are open. We want to see them," Lai said. "But we want them to understand the experience before they come (so) they don’t come out expecting to rent a bike at Billy’s and bike down Periwinkle. They can certainly come out with a bike but Billy’s isn’t open. I want them to come out and enjoy the food, maybe drive out to Captiva and stay a night if they can get a room, but also want them to understand we are running a marathon and we’re nowhere near the first half of it being over. And while we want you to come and enjoy watching the marathon, understand we’re in the first leg of this race. We’ll finish it, but we’re not there yet.”

businesses survive and help our residents rebuild.”

And an open causeway is key to that, he says.

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Sanibel chamber: No SBA loans yet to help recover from Hurricane Ian