Q&A with Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce President Gail Loefgren
Gail Loefgren has served as president of the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce twice — from 1993 to 2008 and again from 2013 to present. When she’s not serving the community, she’s enjoying tennis and spending time with her two children and six grandchildren, who all live in Bradenton.
How did the chamber’s board lure you back after nearly five years?
I got a call from Yvonne Schloss, who was the chairman of the board at the time. I had no idea who she was, so I didn’t call back. She called again about a month later, and I finally returned her call. I thought she was the new president and wanted to sit down and chat. I then realized she was the chairman of the board, and she persuaded me. I realized I wanted to come back.
Are you relieved that units from the pool of 250 tourism units you helped to create through a 2008 referendum are finally being sought?
I thought it would happen sooner. We all did. We first drafted the referendum in 2007. We were worried it wouldn’t pass, but we worked really hard. We even had people of the town who were against tourism speak out for this. We thought the Hilton would jump on it in 2008 or 2009. Unfortunately, this crash hit. It’s taken this long for businesses to recover, but we knew it would happen, and I’m glad it finally is. It’s my biggest accomplishment as president.
To what do you attribute to the surge in attendance at Freedom Fest?
It’s because we’ve been doing it so long. There are more people on the island than ever before in July, and it’s just a cute, old-fashioned parade. We promote the dogs and kids to be part of it, and I think that gets people to come. They love it. Next year, we’ll be even better.
This season brought heavy traffic, despite the former Hilton and Colony Beach & Tennis Resort being closed. Should residents be concerned about when those hotels come back?
No. It is a barrier island, so we have to expect traffic. It will always be here. We have beautiful beaches and beautiful weather. It’s just all part of it. People want to be here, and that will cause traffic.
What does Longboat Key still need to do to stand out as a tourism destination spot?
Our missing ingredient is a town center, a gathering place. That’s what we need and what would complete the experience for visitors and residents. We also need a modern, upscale recreation center. The combo of those two would be ideal.
What’s the right mix of tourism/residential and business for the island?
There’s not much more we can do. The hotels are full, and we’re sold out for 2016. If we could complete the 250 units, get the Colony back and the Zota Beach Resort going, it would be a great mix. I think we could use more retail. J. McLaughlin is amazed by the number of clients it had. They had a great year. We haven’t had that for so long, and we need more. We lost so many businesses in the early 2000s.
How much impact do you think the closing of the Holiday Inn in 2003 had on Longboat Key?
It had a huge impact. Our tourism, real estate and business community are three things that are really tied together. It’s a three-legged stool. Each one depends on the other. Holiday Inn going was really a shame. It hurt a lot of businesses. I still get calls from people who are looking for the Holiday Inn.
The annual hurricane conference has experienced a surge in attendance. Did bringing back alcohol draw people?
Before, it seemed that there were more speakers than people. We decided to provide some hospitality and give guests some food from some of the awesome restaurants around. People like to be more social than just sitting there through a lecture. Then we added tabletops. The addition of those two is key. It became more of a social event, which is true of everything we do. It gets people to come.
Is Centre Shops the chamber's sweet spot location?
I hope so. That’s all I can say. This is a great location for us, and I don’t want to move. It’s been great here.