Use It Or Lose It: The surf industry’s hidden political muscle.

When Jacksonville, Florida Town Councilman Jerry Holland convinced colleagues to approve spending 30,000 dollars to study the feasibility of building an artificial reef at local surf point Hanna Park, he used vague promises that less money would be spent reversing beach erosion and that the reef would generate extra revenue for the city from the increased influx of surfers.

“I didn’t need hard numbers to justify 30,000 dollars,” says Holland, himself a regular surfer. “Just as well, because we don’t have them. But to come up with any part of the twelve-million dollars it might cost to build the reef, we’ll need compelling economic data to gain real local political support.”

Throughout the year, you’ll find surfers along every coastline in America. But do local politicians and decision makers view us as a bunch of apathetic Jeff Spicolis or as a key component to the economic vitality of their communities? Make no mistake, pick up most coastal towns and place them 50 miles inland and their economies would suffer dramatically.

Unfortunately, the absence of reliable data on the economic impact of surfing is the depressingly normal state of affairs.

But at least Jacksonville can offer one of the few examples where even without compelling data, the potential positive economic impact of surfing is actively driving local development initiatives that will benefit the local surf and help the overall economy. At most surf destinations there’s neither economic data nor political organization or activity focused on surf-related economic issues.

“You want to get a grant to do a maritime study on commercial fishing — that’s easy,” says Lindwood Pendleton, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California who is looking at coastal economics. “Want to know what hunting or even hiking contributes to the economy in Alaska? The studies are there. But surfing simply doesn’t come up on the radar screen.”

The surf industry in most places has failed to flex the political muscles that its financial role should give it. As surf-industry retailers and manufacturers, you are the primary representatives of an activity that’s vital to the economic health of many coastal communities.

As an organized front, the surf industry can affect issues such as water quality, real-estate development, and the allocation of capital for projects like Hanna Park. Still skeptical about the influence you wield? Take a closer look at surfing’s hidden economic impact, and then ask yourself if our voices have been heard often enough — or loudly enough — in the halls of power.

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**** Surf City, U.S.A. ****

There are thousands of communities along the U.S. coastline that rely on the beach environment to entice visitors. And although Huntington Beach has the moniker Surf City, U.S.A., it’s fundamentally no different than hundreds of coastal towns. So besides the term “Huntington hop,” what has surfing given Surf City?

Huntington Beach hosts fifteen pro-surfing events each year and as many as 70 amateur contests, but the annual U.S. Open accounts for nearly 60 percent of the revenue generated from these events. On average, close to 250,000 people attend the contest and its associated expo each year. Certainly local hotel rates are highest during the week of the U.S. Open, and retailers do more business during that week than they do at Christmas.

City number crunchers estimate that each contest spectator spends an average of eight dollars at downtown H.B. businesses — in addition to the other revenue streams such as parking and hotel taxes. When all is said and done, the U.S. Open adds 50,000 dollars directly into the city coffers — primarily through parking fees.

However until recently Huntington Beach has never tried to assess surfing’s total contribution to the overall local economy. Now H.B. plans to introduce an accurate computer model, borrowed from other cities, to assess the citywide economic impact of events. This wl track hotel rooms booked, food consumed, length of stay, and all the multipliers associated with large events.

“Every day our lifeguards count beach users along the entire eight miles of beach,” says Huntington Beach’s Director Of Community Services Ron Hagan. “Based on their count, we can say that an average of 5,000 to 10,000 surfers use the beach per day — or more than three-million surf days per year. This works out to be about 25 percent of the eleven-million total beach-user days per year.

“The city collects about 26-million dollars per year in sales tax, and the beach area accounts for around 40 percent of that total,” continues Hagan. “If surfing represents more than 25 percent of beach activities, then surfing probably directly accounts for ten percent of the city’s sales tax.”

Hagan says that when you factor in other revenue streams, such as hotel taxes and revenues from parking or beach concessions, surf-related expenditures generate about 17.3-million dollars in revenue — or more than fifteen percent of the city’s total general-fund budget of 112-million dollars. “If we extrapolate this to the entire local economy, it’s reasonable to say that surfing directly contributes between ten to fifteen percent of the entire economic gross product of Huntington Beach,” says Hagan.

Huntington Beach’s beaches generated 135-million dollars in federal tax revenues and 25-million dollars in sales-tax revenues. So surfing in Huntington Beach — assuming that it’s ten to fifteen percent of all economic activity — generates close to twenty-million tax dollars a year for the federal government on top of its 17.3-million-dollar local contribution.

Once again, H.B. is hardly an anomaly. All along the United States’ 12,352 miles of coastline the story is similar and surfing’s somewhat hidden impact is probably even less clearly defined.

**** The North Shore Without Surfing? ****

Three time zones away in Hawai’i, the political/administrative structures of Haleiwa — a community of 17,000 permanent residents — are integrated into a wider political area, so it’s harder to pinpoint what surfing contributes to the economy. Not surprisingly, surfing, the surf industry, and even beach activities in general have failed to make a dent on the political agenda.

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This much is clear: Surfing drives the local economy. “Probably more than 60 percent of the local businesses here would have a hard time surviving without surfing,” says Triple Crown Event Director Bernie Baker. Local realtor Richard Sterman thinks it accounts for 50 percent of all local economic activity: “You drive through town, and other than caf├ęs and art galleries, surfing dominates the local retail scene.”

But no recent data accurately determines surfing’s real economic impact on the North Shore.

According to Hawai’i State Senator Fred Hemmings (who won the World Championship of Surfing in 1968 and is the founder of the Triple Crown of Surfing), “It’s a pet peeve that in Hawai’i the surfing merchants and many of the other businesses that benefit from surfing aren’t involved in the process of promoting the sport on a political level. Too many surfers still see themselves as outsiders, when by right they should be the economic establishment. They need to get involved in local decision making.”

Senator Hemmings adds, “When you look at everything from surf stores to hotels, surfing is without any doubt the number-one industry on the North Shore.”

**** More Than Just The Lineup ****

It is even harder to accurately quantify the indirect benefits surfing gives to a community. “Surfing in itself creates a sightseeing destination attraction,” says Hagan.

Akira Fukuda, manager of Jack’s Surfboards, backs this up: “Half of our sales are to tourists buying surf apparel who like the vibe but will never in their lives set foot on a board.”

Surfing’s ability to confer a “brand” to a destination is equally true along the North Shore. “Even during the summer when the water is flat, we’ll have tens of thousands of tourists from Japan or Jersey standing looking at where the Banzai Pipeline should be,” says Baker.

**** Crisis In The Water ****

If the surfing and the beach environment is fundamental to the health of many coastal communities, the rash of pollution-related beach closures should be a wakeup call for both local governments and the surf industry. It’s an issue tailor-made for the surf industry’s involvement and will directly affect the long-term appeal of our lifestyle.

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The issue is also front and center like never before. After all, hardly a week passed in 1999 and 2000 when Huntington Beach wasn’t in the news because of beach closures and sewage spills.

Nor was Huntington Beach alone: last year more than 7,000 beaches were closed in the United States — many of them in California. Many feel that we’re rapidly approaching a time when the ocean is no longer viewed as a healthy environment. And yet, the debate on pollution’s effect continues.

“The more publicity there is about pollution, the more people tend to ignore it,” says Ron Hagan, switching into P.R. mode. “The reason for the closures is because our regulations are so much tighter now. At 100 parts bacteria per million, we have to post the beach as closed. Meanwhile, swimming pools in Orange County are allowed to stay open at 300 parts per million. The water is as clean as it’s ever been and most surfers here know it.”

Surfrider Foundation Executive Director Chris Evans disputes this. “There is definitely more testing, but the water cleanliness is still questionable. And there’s plenty of evidence to indicate increased pollution and evidence to suggest this does have a financial impact.”

Regardless, surfing needs to step up and assume the role of a political force that can influence its own economic destiny. The industry’s current involvement in environmental issues is both worthwhile and the obvious first step toward broader political involvement.

“Environmental activism has always been a political incubator,” says Evans. “There are numerous examples around the world of political leaders and organizations first cutting their teeth on environmental causes. Although it may still be a few years off, the current involvement in pollution issues — something the industry believes will ultimately have an economic impact — also indicates we can look forward to a day when surfing occupies its rightful place at the big table of political involvement.”

Use it or lose it: the surf industry’s political muscle exists, but will we work together and grow the lifestyle of surfing, or are we destined to remain the 98-pound weakling at the table of power?n during the summer when the water is flat, we’ll have tens of thousands of tourists from Japan or Jersey standing looking at where the Banzai Pipeline should be,” says Baker.

**** Crisis In The Water ****

If the surfing and the beach environment is fundamental to the health of many coastal communities, the rash of pollution-related beach closures should be a wakeup call for both local governments and the surf industry. It’s an issue tailor-made for the surf industry’s involvement and will directly affect the long-term appeal of our lifestyle.

[IMAGE 2]

The issue is also front and center like never before. After all, hardly a week passed in 1999 and 2000 when Huntington Beach wasn’t in the news because of beach closures and sewage spills.

Nor was Huntington Beach alone: last year more than 7,000 beaches were closed in the United States — many of them in California. Many feel that we’re rapidly approaching a time when the ocean is no longer viewed as a healthy environment. And yet, the debate on pollution’s effect continues.

“The more publicity there is about pollution, the more people tend to ignore it,” says Ron Hagan, switching into P.R. mode. “The reason for the closures is because our regulations are so much tighter now. At 100 parts bacteria per million, we have to post the beach as closed. Meanwhile, swimming pools in Orange County are allowed to stay open at 300 parts per million. The water is as clean as it’s ever been and most surfers here know it.”

Surfrider Foundation Executive Director Chris Evans disputes this. “There is definitely more testing, but the water cleanliness is still questionable. And there’s plenty of evidence to indicate increased pollution and evidence to suggest this does have a financial impact.”

Regardless, surfing needs to step up and assume the role of a political force that can influence its own economic destiny. The industry’s current involvement in environmental issues is both worthwhile and the obvious first step toward broader political involvement.

“Environmental activism has always been a political incubator,” says Evans. “There are numerous examples around the world of political leaders and organizations first cutting their teeth on environmental causes. Although it may still be a few years off, the current involvement in pollution issues — something the industry believes will ultimately have an economic impact — also indicates we can look forward to a day when surfing occupies its rightful place at the big table of political involvement.”

Use it or lose it: the surf industry’s political muscle exists, but will we work together and grow the lifestyle of surfing, or are we destined to remain the 98-pound weakling at the table of power?