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Businesses struggle with street construction

Franklin Street business owners say that construction meant to open the mall to auto traffic is driving customers away.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002


Joanne Salem moved to Tampa from New York City last year to start a restaurant on Franklin Street. She quit her real estate job, packed up her house and said a tearful goodbye to relatives.

Salem and partner Gregg Wasserman opened the Downtown Sports Pub April 3. Office workers filled the place the first week for its daily specials of meatloaf, pasta and jambalaya.

Salem was thrilled.

Then construction started in April.

"It's killing us," she said. "I'll be 6 feet under when it's done."

Other businesses may be too.

Salem is among several owners on Franklin struggling to stay afloat while crews redo the street and sidewalk between Twiggs and Madison streets. Construction was scheduled to last a few months, but has taken longer.

Business officials blame a weekend of rain and the annual Florida State Thespian Festival for some of the delay. Crews also limited sidewalk work to the weekends, to reduce the impact on businesses.

Theo Abbas, manager and owner of Bread & Butter, said the disruption has cut business by 40 percent. He lost his outdoor seating and had to take down his awning at his own expense.

"We would have been better if we had closed down," he said.

Abbas has survived thanks to a loyal clientele, but he worries that if the work continues much longer, diners will go elsewhere. He questions why crews haven't worked during the night, when downtown becomes a ghost town.

"People have told us it was going to be four weeks and already it's been seven or eight," he said.

Owners said construction started slowly and only recently picked up. In the beginning crews only worked a few days a week.

Karen Muschiette, manager of Beverly's Hallmark Card and Gift Shop, said many customers don't realize the stores and restaurants are open. Others don't want to maneuver through the work site.

"We've had customers say to us that they don't even want to come down in all the dust and dirt," she said.

Muschiette estimates business is down significantly, but she can't say to what extent. She gets a lot of business from people who come to the mall for lunch. In the last several weeks, many regulars have disappeared.

"I'm sure this is going to be nice but, in the meantime, it's a struggle to survive," she said.

Salem says the city should help businesses financially during the construction. She has fallen behind on bills and, as of Wednesday, needed an extension from Tampa Electric Co., she said.

To bring in business, Salem resorted to handing out cards in the street and herding in customers like cattle. She can't afford to close.

"Lunchtime should be packed and it's not," she said. "It's horrible."

The Tampa Downtown Partnership, which represents downtown businesses, is working closely with the city to make sure work on the rest of Franklin proceeds on schedule. President Christine Burdick can see construction from her office window and keeps track of the number of workers.

"There has been more activity this week. I count on the fact that the city is doing everything they can do get it done," she said. "Sometimes the cure is as bad as the disease." The project is part of a city plan to liven up downtown by opening the Franklin Street mall to vehicles. The city turned Franklin into a pedestrian mall in 1974, but the anticipated sidewalk cafes and boutiques never materialized.

Today, the majority of Franklin's foot traffic comes at lunchtime. At night, the area shuts down. The city hopes improving the street and sidewalk will encourage more people to live and visit downtown.

Construction began on the block between Kennedy Boulevard and Madison and will continue from Twiggs to Zack Street into the fall. Work between Madison and Twiggs affected the most businesses.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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