By Victoria Cavaliere
SEASIDE HEIGHTS, New Jersey (Reuters) - The New Jersey shore ushered in the unofficial start of summer on Friday, with businesses making last-minute preparations and officials declaring the resort towns ready for visitors seven months after Superstorm Sandy.
Governor Chris Christie oversaw a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open a freshly re-constructed boardwalk in Seaside Heights and declared it "a great day for New Jersey."
"We're here with the whole country welcoming the Jersey shore back," he said.
The Seaside Heights event, televised live on NBC's "Today Show," capped a week of beach reopenings and public relations events up and down the 127-mile stretch of beach communities that have been rebuilding since the October 29, 2012 storm leveled homes, ripped up boardwalks and washed theme park rides out to sea.
The storm took a financial toll of nearly $37 billion statewide, according to official statistics.
In Seaside Heights, T-shirt shops, arcades and restaurants were stocking shelves to prepare for the Memorial Day weekend, which typically lures beachgoers to kick off the summer season.
On the boardwalk, the smell of french fries and funnel cakes mingled with the scent of sawdust from the ongoing construction.
"We're just looking forward, not back," said Roger Jarkezian, owner of a small shop called Sand Tropez which flooded during the storm and just reopened this month.
At McLoone's Asbury Grille in Asbury Park, general manager Alicia Baratta declared herself "very, very excited" for the season's prospects.
"I'm expecting the busiest season yet," she said.
Enthusiasm aside, the season will be different from any other, residents say.
Lifeguard Jourdan Chiavaro, 24, said she would be back to work for Long Beach Island township this summer but was unsure what to expect.
"Before, I knew my beach. I knew the tides, the rips," she said. "Now there's all this sand that was moved down, the dunes have changed, the rips have changed."
Scientists estimate that Jersey shore beaches are on average 30 to 40 feet narrower than they were before the storm.
The normally hot summer rental market has dipped, with both demand and inventory down in many towns, real estate experts said.
"It's been slow. There's no getting around it," said Matthew Schlosser, vice president of Schlosser Real Estate in Lavallette.
"We are 50 to 60 percent off on rentals right now, and there's no way we are going to make up that loss," he said.
With many homes still undergoing repairs, available rentals were down about 20 percent in Lavallette as well as nearby Ocean Beach and Ortley Beach, he said.
The storm wreaked such havoc that roughly 95 percent of homeowners in Lavallette suffered damage, officials have said.
As to the slow rental market, Schlosser put some blame on a persistent public perception that the region is in tatters.
"It didn't matter how many emails we sent assuring people we were open. Some people didn't even think it was possible to get here," he said.
Tourism makes up a sizable piece of New Jersey's economy.
The four counties along the shore account for half of the state's tourism and travel industry, which in 2012 generated a record of nearly $40 billion in revenue, according to the New Jersey Amusement Association.
Tourism is responsible for one in ten of the state's jobs, according to Christie's office.
On Long Beach Island, a barrier island that has fared better than some of the harder-hit shore areas, summer rentals are at about 95 percent of their normal levels, and 90 percent of local business will be back this summer, officials say.
"So far, reservations for Memorial Day weekend have been strong," said Jane DiPietro, owner of Stefano's Seafood on Long Beach Island.
"The restaurant took on five feet of water, but everything's been redone and it looks great," she said.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Sofina Mirza-Reid)