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    Seabreeze shops pay price of progress

    Business drops while a new Publix supermarket is going up. Owners say it's getting difficult to stay patient.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 30, 2003

    PALM HARBOR -- It's almost lunch time, but the three green antique barber chairs are empty, and the 1940s cash register is quiet.

    Michael Thomas, the owner of Michael T's Barber Shop, sits outside with his white dog, Razor, waiting for customers.

    "March is usually my peak month," said Thomas, 52. "Business is down 70 percent."

    For Thomas, who has had a barbershop in Seabreeze Plaza since 1985, business has never been this bad.

    In the past year, he has cut his staff from three barbers to just him and a part-timer, refinanced his home, and despite numerous advertisements and special sales on haircuts, some days doesn't have a single customer.

    Other merchants in the plaza, including a lounge, a jeweler and a health food store, also say they're struggling.

    Yes, America is at war with Iraq. And yes, tourism is in a slump. But the Seabreeze merchants see another reason for the slowdown: construction.

    Publix is building a 45,000-square-foot supermarket at the Seabreeze Plaza, located at U.S. 19 and Curlew Road. The store is scheduled to open in September.

    The plaza is also going to get $7-million in upgrades, including new paint and lights, repaving the parking lot and architectural improvements such as the addition of decorative towers to match the new Publix.

    As a result of the construction, a portion of the parking lot in front of the Publix was blocked off, and a fence went up, making it difficult for shoppers to turn into the center from Curlew Road. Some of the construction protrudes out so much drivers can't see the signs of the other stores. The billboard is too small to list all the businesses in the plaza.

    "When they tore this down, a lot of my customers thought we had just closed down," said Thomas, pointing to the structure of the Publix. "They put this construction fence all the way around. They made it like a maze. So it was inconvenient for a lot of customers."

    Thomas, who has been a tenant in the center for 18 years, relocated his barbershop to a different space in the shopping center in June to make room for the Lakeland grocery chain's store. He notified as many customers as he could.

    "A lot of the snowbirds didn't realize what was going on, that I moved," said Thomas. "All this took place when the snowbirds were up North. They didn't realize I was in the shopping center."

    The decline in business is the latest in a series of setbacks for tenants in the Seabreeze Plaza. The center lost its two main anchors within a three-month span in 2001. Both stores, a Frank's Nursery and Crafts and a Waccamaw, shut down as their parent companies filed for bankruptcy and reorganized their finances.

    When Thomas first moved into Seabreeze, there was a Save 'N' Pack grocery store. The first day he opened, business was better than it is now, he said.

    Even when the smaller Waccamaw took Save 'N' Pack's space, the store brought some foot traffic to the center.

    "It was holding up," said Thomas, who has been cutting hair for 30 years. "We had exposure to Curlew Road. Then when I moved over here, that's when everything went pop."

    It's not just the barbershop that's suffering.

    The Seabreeze Lounge was barren Thursday, with only a few lunchtime diners and just a couple of people sitting at the bar.

    "It's just the lack of an anchor store," said Gordon Beck, 65, who owns Seabreeze Lounge and Seabreeze Lounge II in Clearwater. "We had the same thing when Save 'N' Pack went out of business. We'll live through this slowdown."

    Only a few people were at the counters inside Larisa Jewelry Corp., a wholesale jewelry store.

    "This is worse than 9/11," said Chris Markos, 49, the owner of Larisa Jewelry Corp. "Even 9/11 was better. We don't have the crowd that we're supposed to have."

    Even Palm Harbor Natural Foods Supermarket has been affected by the construction. The 13,500-square-foot store is next door to the new Publix.

    "It's definitely affected our business," said Nathan Crowell, director of marketing for Natural Retail Group, which owns the store. "You have congestion, confusion. We've had to spend money on signage."

    T.K. Sullivan, vice president of Seabreeze Associates, which owns the center, said he knew the construction was going to create some hardships for the tenants.

    "It's been a tough time for everybody," said Sullivan. "The closer we get, the more excitement, we'll see. We think we'll catch up real fast.

    "The tenants have been patient," he said. "They have suffered from it. They only have a couple more months to go."

    That's the mantra of the business owners: "Hold out until the Publix opens."

    "It'll help our daytime business for sure," said Beck. "We'll have a lot of husbands stopping by for a beer when the wife's shopping."

    Jamie Stone, the owner of Pack/Ship Unlimited, is trying to remodel before the Publix opens.

    "Once the Publix gets up there, it should be better," he said.

    "We advertise," said Markos. "We got to keep going. Hopefully when the Publix opens, better days ahead."

    Despite the sluggishness of his business, Thomas said having a barbershop in a Publix shopping center is a dream come true. Once the store opens, he's planning to hire additional help and extend hours. He also recently purchased a $1,000 barber pole.

    "The price you have to pay for progress," said Thomas. "Once they open, we'll all have smiles on our faces."

    -- Megan Scott can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or .

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