Beach businesses feel bruised
By SARAH P. KENNEDY
CLEARWATER BEACH -- Mandalay Avenue business owners agree on two things: a streetscaping project will greatly improve the appearance of their thoroughfare, but construction is choking their revenue, which already is hurting because of a soft tourism market.
"This project has been destroying businesses on Mandalay," said Stefan Malatesta, manager of the Beach Bar & Grill, 454 Mandalay Ave. "Every shop owner is struggling, day by day, to survive."
The $1.9-million beautification project began in May and will be complete in February, which leaves time for cleanup and final touches before spring break season begins in earnest March 1.
"We're on schedule," said city landscape architect Tim Kurtz, who serves as the project manager. "On a lot of things, we're ahead of schedule."
That offers little comfort to businesses trying to stay afloat until March.
"Our sales have dropped and continue to drop," said Tina Williams, manager of Subway Sandwiches & Salads, 409 Mandalay Ave. "My big concern is when they take those parking spaces out, I'm going to lose even more business."
The project will remove street parking in front of some businesses and add parking in other spots.
"People won't park a block away in a metered lot," Williams said. "We're supposed to be convenient. That's not convenient. That's a lost sale for me."
The new medians will not include cutaways for left turns in the middle of the street, which concerns Tom Gionis, who owns Waterfront Restaurant and the building it's in at 490 Mandalay Ave., which houses other businesses. He worries that customers won't want to drive farther up the road and make a U-turn to enter his parking lot.
"It's going to be a hardship. I've been waiting 28 years for improvements, and now it's the worst nightmare," Gionis said. "I will lose 60 to 70 percent of my income. My tenants will lose 60 to 70 percent of their income."
Malatesta said the Beach Bar is losing so much business during construction, he wonders whether shops will be able to stay open another five months.
"I know it's done in March, but are you going to make it to March?" Malatesta said.
Williams has had to reduce the number of employees at Subway and cut the hours of the three remaining full-time workers.
Terri Walker, a cashier at Eckerd drugstore, 467 Mandalay Ave., said: "In the last month or two, I've had at least 20 people who were employees of Mandalay businesses in looking for work. They were laid off. We're hurting."
Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne told business owners at a meeting Monday that if they can prove that a city construction project has hurt them financially, they may submit a claim for compensation. But city finance director Margie Simmons said that a business owner would need to show negligence on the city's part to get any money.
"It's not just for loss of business," Simmons said.
An example of negligence would be a city vehicle driving into a building and causing property damage or knocking down a power pole and severing power to a business.
"The city has done everything it can to make sure there has been as little inconvenience as possible," Simmons said of the work on Mandalay Avenue.
Business owners who wish to file a claim may contact the city's risk manager, Sharon Walton, at 562-4650.
At least two businesses on Mandalay maintain a more philosophic attitude about the construction work.
Linda Wood, a sales associate at Key West Express, 484-A Mandalay Ave., credits her boss' spirituality and personality with keeping the business viable.
"She has a lot of faith," Wood said of Soozy Naylor, owner of the tropical resort wear boutique. "She hopes God will pull her through. . . . She's very charismatic. She always says, "Put out positive energy.' If you have a good attitude, people will come back."
Bob Heilman Jr., owner of Bob Heilman's Beachcomber and Bobby's Bistro and Wine Bar, 447 Mandalay Ave., said he relies heavily on business from area residents, not just tourists.
"We depend on locals. You don't have a 12-month business if you don't have locals," Heilman said.
Heilman said another key to success is Mandalay businesses working together to survive.
"We support other businesses, and they support us. It's a family affair," Heilman said.
Heilman has demonstrated that support by paying for advertising in the St. Petersburg Times reminding readers that the Mandalay shops and restaurants are still open and would appreciate their business.
Heilman is pleased with the streetscaping project and said it's important as a business owner to stay optimistic.
"You've got to remember it's reconstruction, not destruction. It's a good thing. The city's been good," Heilman said. "The economy's been bad. There's a lot of things contributing to bad business. This is a positive project, and it should be seen that way. . . . They're working as fast as they can."
Sheila Cole, executive director of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce, agrees that the national economy and the low season factor into sluggish sales along Mandalay.
"It's a tough situation, and the construction makes it worse," Cole said. "We try to be as encouraging as we can. We know there are some businesses that are not going to make it. Others will. It's heartbreaking. Some people are able to hang on by their boot straps. For those who can hang on, we're hoping the economy will pick up."
Cole expects that businesses will rebound once construction is complete and high season begins. She said word-of-mouth advertising is crucial.
"Those who will be here in the spring will go back and say, "Boy, that place is beautiful.' "
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