Palm Beach businesses stung by cost of hosting Trump's weekend retreat
Restrictions on air and road travel when the president is at his Mar-a-Lago resort threaten 'to grind our economy to a halt', says one hotel owner
Richard Luscombe in Palm Beach, Florida
For Donald Trump it will be a weekend of relaxation in familiar surroundings, a round of golf with the Japanese prime minister on his beloved south Florida course and an opportunity to play the genial host at the exclusive members-only Palm Beach club that Trump has dubbed the "winter White House".
But as the 45th US president enjoys a second vacation in as many weekends at Mar-a-Lago, his private coastal retreat, the wealthy town that hosts him continues to grapple with the unprecedented financial and logistical burdens imposed upon it as a sometimes home to the new commander-in-chief.
Community leaders are concerned by the spiralling security costs of protecting Trump and his family during his frequent escapes from Washington DC, and fears are growing that some local traders could be put out of business amid the air and land lockdowns mandated by the presence of a president who has promised to protect the interests of small-business owners.
"People will just say I'm not going to stay in the Palm Beaches, I don't need the aggravation. It's going to grind our economy to a halt," said Jeff Greene, a hotel owner who says that he has already lost bookings from prospective guests at his upmarket Tideline Ocean Resort and Spa further south along Ocean Boulevard from Trump's waterfront estate.
"For people in Palm Beach, it's exciting having a president here … But you can't close down our roads, it's just not right. You can't close down our town for four years, or eight years."
The Secret Service requires airspace and road routes around Mar-a-Lago to be closed when Trump comes to town, and Greene worries that restaurants and hotels on narrow Palm Beach island will be the first to lose out. "This is a seasonal resort community, a place where there are a number of small business people who have to make their whole livelihood in a short period of time," he said.
"And basically the opportunities in a town like this are exactly the times he's planning on being here, Christmas, New Year, Presidents' weekend, Easter and all these other weekends, like last weekend and this coming weekend. In our hotel we depend on February and March to make 50% of our annual profit."
While hoteliers such as Greene are unable to yet put a dollar figure on their expected losses, Palm Beach County's airports, flight schools and other aviation-related businesses are already counting the cost.
Trump's four-day visit last weekend caused more than $250,000 in lost revenue from fuel sales and landing fees, according to a dossier released this week by county aviation officials, mostly at Palm Beach international airport, where Air Force One lands and departs.
At Lantana general aviation airport, inside the 30-mile flight restriction zone around Mar-a-Lago imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration, all operations cease during presidential visits. Jonathan Miller, chief executive of airport operator Stellar Aviation, said the repeated groundings, including training and sightseeing flights, are forcing several Lantana tenants to consider their futures. Palm Beach Aircraft Services estimates losses could reach $2m a year and several private plane owners have already switched to other airports, Miller said.
"When [the president's] here for three days we lose at least $30,000. Our small businesses can't survive, they'll either shut down or leave," said Miller, who added that more than 400 people work at the airport.
"There's a little bit of hysteria and emotion but these short-term losses have significant impacts to us and the long-term damages will literally kill this airport. It's not a one-off type of event. He's going to be here a lot."
Miller has joined with the Palm Beach airports director, Bruce Pelly, and concerned county commissioners to appeal to the Secret Service for a relaxation of some of the tightest restrictions to "get Lantana functioning".
While the airports' losses grow, Palm Beach is also seeking relief for security costs to protect Trump, including policing of demonstrations. About 3,000 people took part in a peaceful protest at Mar-a-Lago last weekend and another is planned for Sunday.
The Palm Beach sheriff's office did not respond to the Guardian's request for cost details of last weekend's visit, or Trump's extended Christmas and New Year break at Mar-a-Lago, but its overtime bill alone topped $250,000 for the then president-elect's short Thanksgiving sojourn.
At a commission meeting this week, county leaders reaffirmed their desire to enlist congressional help to seek federal reimbursement. "We're exhausting all options, including Twitter," said commissioner Dave Kerner.
Low-level security issues were a regular occurrence for staff at Mar-a-Lago even before Trump's presidency, since he purchased the estate in 1985. A records request to the Palm Beach County police department revealed more than 300 police callouts to the address on 100 S Ocean Blvd and the area outside, between 1985 and 2016. Many of these occurrences were mundane: more than 70 traffic stops, 25 suspicious person and trespass reports and 10 property damage incidents.
But the recent manoeuvrings underscore how Palm Beach, for more than a century a renowned winter playground for millionaires, is in uncharted territory when it comes to accommodating a sitting president.
"Back in the 1960s John F Kennedy was here but it was a different town then, much smaller and quieter," said Laurel Baker, a longtime Palm Beach resident and executive director of the town's chamber of commerce.
Baker said tourists had always come to gawk at the Rolls-Royces, Bentleys and Maseratis parked outside the upscale jewellery and fashion stores along Worth Avenue, but the challenge now is turning Trump's notoriety into financial gain for the island's business owners.
"People want to see the winter White House but they're drive-bys, which is a terrible word to use, but that's what it is," she said. "It's all well and good, but it doesn't help unless they also stop for a bite to eat."
There are, of course, no such worries inside Mar-a-Lago, where the opulent dining room is full every dinnertime when Trump is in residence, and the non-refundable membership fee doubled to $200,000 within weeks of his election victory.
With reporting by Oliver Laughland