Fire heats up local economy

Published 9:48 pm Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The wildfire that burned more than 6,000 acres of the Great Dismal Swamp pumped more than smoke into Suffolk.

Hundreds of out-of-town firefighters pumped thousands of dollars into the local economy through hotel rooms, meals, gas and other expenses.

“It was very helpful from an economic standpoint that they were here,” said Brian Williams, manager of the downtown Hilton Garden Inn. “We definitely got a boost from the firefighters, and they did come in and spend extra money in the restaurant.”


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As many as 400 personnel from outside the area were on the job at the fire’s peak. The blaze, sparked by lightning, was first reported Aug. 4. It burned at a rapid clip until Hurricane Irene hit on Aug. 27, then subsided to only a few hot spots that remained to be put out.

Many of the firefighters lodged at Williams’ 150-room hotel, which even allowed a command post to be set up in the boardroom.

“It pretty much put us at 90-percent occupancy for the entire month,” he said. But, he added, the hotel did turn away some firefighters to ensure it still had rooms available for its regular corporate clientele.

“We wanted to make sure we took care of that, as well,” he said, adding that this August was better than a normal August “even back in the best of times.”

At Ricky’s and Roy’s Catering, office and catering clerk Melody Stark said the business provided about 400 lunches per day for 10 days for the firefighters.

“That was awesome for us because of the downturn in the economy,” she said.

Beginning before dawn each morning, staff came to the business on Holland Road to pack bags with sandwiches, juice, fruit, granola bars, trail mix and other food that would “keep their energy level up and keep them hydrated,” Stark said.

“It was really a production line to see,” she said. “We had the whole restaurant full of bags. They had teamwork out there, and we had teamwork here getting it all together for them.”

Treasurer Ron Williams reported his office collected about $20,000 more in lodging and meals taxes for this August compared to August 2010. He cautioned, though, that some of the rise likely is because of the “hospitality growth in Harbour View.”

Some of the hike in taxes collected also is likely because of Hurricane Irene, which sent residents without power scurrying to hotels and restaurants for hot showers and warm meals. Some out-of-town power company workers also needed food and a place to stay when they came to the area to help restore electricity.

The lodging taxes collected shot up about $15,000 from last August to $121,057. Meals taxes went up less than $5,000 to around $481,700.