Mark O’Donnell usually books his family’s summer vacation in January. For the last dozen years, that meant reserving an oceanfront house for a week in Long Beach Island, a quiet cluster of beach towns on the New Jersey shore. But this January, he didn’t book the trip. He had Sandy on his mind.
The storm ripped through LBI in late October, but for months he watched the scenes of destruction replay on TV—the whitecaps lapping storefronts on the boulevard, the houses shifted and battered. So he put off vacation planning, too wary to book a trip to a place that might be nursing gaping wounds.
Each summer, families, couples, and carloads of friends migrate to one of the 40 shore towns that dot the coast of New Jersey for brief escapes to the ocean or bay. But this year, many people who have devotedly returned to the Jersey Shore each summer are grappling with the same question that conflicted the O'Donnells: Will it be the same as it used to be?
With Memorial Day around the corner, it's a question that has taken on more urgency for prospective visitors finalizing their summer plans, and for those on the shore who depend on the seasonal influx of vacationers.
On Long Beach Island, one of the shore's marquee summer destinations, the problem is playing out in the realm of summer real estate, a key industry for much of the Shore. Realtors and homeowners on the island say they’re seeing more rental vacancies than usual for this time of year and worry that the damage from Sandy got more attention than the cleanup.
“People think we’re Seaside Heights and we’re not,” says Joe Mancini, the mayor of Long Beach, the island’s largest township. Like others on LBI, he believes that images of lingering damage in Seaside and Mantoloking, LBI’s neighbors to the north, have sowed the flawed notion that the entire Jersey shore is still damaged.
“This was a horrific storm,” Mancini adds, “but we were aggressive in cleaning it up.”
Certainly, much of the island appears to be in good shape. Fresh signs and flags adorn shops and restaurants along the island’s main drag, letting passersby know they’ve re-opened. A hilltop of debris that was parked outside the Acme supermaket, a symbol of the island's devestation, has been hauled away. The island’s main attractions, the pale sandy beaches, have been restored and will be open for the summer.
But some property owners are having trouble relaying that message to seasonal renters, still clinging to the images of flooding and mayhem.
Todd Cohan, a 46-year-old entrepreneur who has rented out properties on LBI since 1997, cannot remember a slower summer. Neither of his two luxury oceanfront homes suffered any flooding or damage and still, with just two weeks until Memorial Day, Cohan had vacancies for 40 percent of the season.
To attract prospective guests, he’s posted current images of his properties to real estate websites Homeaway.com and Beachrentals.net. He's added a “pay by credit card” option to his listings, which is something he has never done before, and he estimates that he has emailed about 2,000 people—anyone who has ever inquired about either of his 5-bedroom properties—to see if they’d like to book a few nights.
So far, he’s gotten few positive responses. “They write back to say, ‘due to the devastation and destruction from Sandy’—What destruction? I want them to come down here and show me what they think the destruction is,” Cohan says.
Since the rentals are not his only source of income, he doesn’t expect the vacancies to cripple him, though he says he’ll certainly feel the impact. Each home goes for about $9,000 a week—money he puts toward his mortgages.
Weekly rates for rentals on LBI range in price from the high triple digits for inland cottages to more than $12,000 for exclusive oceanfront properties. While realtors say that the dip in demand has been seen across all price levels, luxury homes have taken it particularly hard.
"Normally, they go first," said Matt Kulinski from the G. Anderson real estate agency. "The way the market works, in January and February, the high-end properties go." But this year, he says, "it's been the other way around."
Vacancies are a concern for both homeowners and local businesses, which depend on a surge of summer income to last them through the slower season. LBI, an island with less than 12,000 residents, has more than 17,000 rental homes, which fill up each summer with visitors. In 2011, summertime tourists generated more than $1.2 billion in spending at restaurants, retail shops and other businesses in southern Ocean County, according to a report commissioned by the LBI Chamber of Commerce.
John Franzoni a realtor at Oceanside Realty who has been in the real estate business for the last 30 years, acknowledges that the storm was worse than any that has hit the island in generations, but doesn’t attribute the dip in rental demand to any real storm damage.
“It’s really because of the perception out there,” he said, noting that just 5 percent of his properties had to be delisted after the storm. “We’re in really good shape, we’re ready to go.”
Still, his rentals are down 20 percent from this time last year—a figure repeated at many agencies along the island—and he says the internet is partially to blame.
“Twenty years ago, on a Saturday or Sunday anytime after the Super Bowl, you’d have people lined up outside to look at rental properties,” he said, referring to the early February weekends when the wave of summer rental bookings begin. “Now, we do 80 or 90 percent of the rentals right over the internet. So that’s been a big change. If people were coming down, they would see the condition, but they only know what they’ve heard. And they’ve gotten a lot of bad reports.”
The island surely wasn’t spared. More than 3,300 applications for residential federal disaster assistance were submitted from Long Beach township alone—a township with just over 8,000 homes. And while the clean-up was aggressive, LBI still bears distinct Sandy scars. Oceanfront homes at the southern end of the island jut out of sand dunes on skinny trunks of exposed pilings. Dumpsters and construction signs still dot the island, particularly in the community of Holgate, which buzzes with the sounds of construction.
But for the most part, the sort of damage that might matter most to tourists has largely been repaired: The beaches have been cleaned and restored and Mayor Mancini says that 95 percent of LBI’s stores and restaurants will be open for business by Memorial Day.
To combat whatever negative impressions would-be visitors may be harboring, a group of LBI devotees organized a commercial aimed at New Jersey residents who may not have seen the island post-recovery. It began airing in early May on about a dozen networks, including Bravo, CNBC, Fox News and Nat Geo, after local businesses and the mayor’s office raised $50,000 for airtime.
While there’s no way to predict the impact the commercial and other publicity may have on wary visitors, rental prices point to optimism. Real estate agents say that homeowners have not lowered their prices just yet. (Cohan hasn't either.)
Kulinski from the G. Anderson Agency predicts that warmer weather will bring more business to the rental market. "When it's cold and windy and not really beach-like weather, [beach vacations] are put on the back burner." He also thinks that prospective renters are waiting to see how much progress the island makes and will eventually commit.
O'Donnell did. After four months of vacillating, he took a daytrip to LBI to assess the storm damage for himself. He found his usual summer home in Holgate badly beaten, as he had expected. But he found plenty of other homes to choose from and settled on a 4-bedroom in Beach Haven, which he booked for a week in July.
“I was pleasantly pleased. The rest of the island seemed to be in decent shape," he said, adding that he was happy to contribute to the island's summer economy. "They’re working like demons to get it ready.”