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Success eludes West Bay

Some business owners along West Bay Drive haven't seen the sales they expected after joining Downtown Largo Main Street.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published February 16, 2004

LARGO - When Mike Martinez opened his funky furniture store on West Bay Drive last May, he got a quick lesson on the sign codes in the redevelopment district.

Outside his door, he hung five balloons on an A-frame sign that said "Grand Opening."

Terry Moore, manager of Downtown Largo Main Street, stopped by. She handed him the balloons and his A-frame sign, he said, telling him he couldn't have balloons outside and his A-frame sign was the wrong style.

"I sat out there with my A-frame sign and my balloons in my hand and I was devastated. The fear just came right over me. How am I going to get people in here?" Martinez said.

Martinez is one of several merchants on West Bay Drive, where the city began one of two redevelopment plans more than a decade ago.

Across the street is West Bay Village, a townhome and commercial development that symbolizes the revitalization of downtown. Nearby merchants are awaiting its completion, hoping it will help rev up their revenues.

Meanwhile, they're frustrated.

They say they are struggling to attract customers on busy West Bay Drive, and they're tired of jumping through what they see as code enforcement hoops.

Some merchants say the problems are aggravated by a lack of communication between the city and business.

Others are disappointed in Downtown Largo Main Street, a nonprofit organization that aims to revitalize Largo's historic and traditional commercial districts. They say its efforts have been less than satisfactory, and its manager has been ineffective.

Largo is one of 1,500 cities nationwide involved in the national Main Street movement.

Beth Corby, who opened West Bay Fine Wines & Tobacco in October, said things are so tough she's reinventing her business entirely.

She said she's lucky if she gets 10 customers a day. And to make matters worse, she recently learned that a competing coffee and wine bar was coming to West Bay Village.

She'll continue to sell wine and cigars, but, in desperation, she's turning her store into a miniclub called West Bay Cabaret.

"I was really afraid, I was deathly afraid I was going to go under," Corby said.

Tom "T.J." Sutton, who runs West Coast Garage on West Bay Drive, agreed that businesses in the district have a lot of sign restrictions that can hamper their visibility.

"There's a lot of talk about what the businesses can't do," Sutton said. "I'd like to see the city have a class or seminar with a little more spin on what we can do."

City officials say codes are more strict in the redevelopment area, which includes the Clearwater-Largo Road corridor, because they have to be.

"We want the district to be unique. We don't want those commercial districts to resemble Ulmerton Road or other commercial corridors," said Community Development Director Mike Staffopoulos.

Staffopoulos said he understands that some policies in the area could be revisited.

"Some may be too stringent," he said. "It's not something that can be re-enacted within 24 hours, but it's something that needs to be addressed for the long-term interests of the city."

The city has made some efforts toward that end. Tuesday, commissioners decided to give businesses a trial period allowing temporary banners to promote their shops.

It's not just strict rules that frustrate some merchants. A few joined Downtown Largo Main Street, hoping it would be their advocate and promote their businesses through its newsletter, Web site and events.

But Martinez discovered in December that his business wasn't even listed on the Web site, nor were most of the 100 or so members of Main Street. The members page listed past advertisers, Moore said. The site hasn't been updated since April, except for a calendar of events, since it no longer has a Web master.

And as far as Main Street events go, Sutton said they haven't done much to boost his business.

"I think the city and the Main Street organization both have the best intentions. I think they have some small organizational problems," he said.

He said he attended a few meetings, but found them unhelpful.

"They seemed to get kind of disorganized and I'm not sure they're still having meetings," he said.

A couple merchants point the finger at Moore, Main Street's manager, whom they say isn't doing enough to support local businesses. They say the fact that her position is now funded by the city, rather than the nonprofit Main Street, confuses them. They wonder where her loyalties lie.

Largo pays her $35,000 a year to run the association, which she has managed since the beginning of 2001. Some merchants are concerned the paycheck makes her feel obligated to the city's agenda.

"As an employee of the city, I believe her heart's not in it because she runs to the city first," Martinez said. He said he has had at least one run-in with Moore because he made complaints directly to the city, rather than going through her.

But Moore said she represented Main Street and its board before, and she represents them now.

"I get my directives from the board. It doesn't make a difference what I think," she said.

City manager Steve Stanton agreed with Moore. He said he hasn't seen evidence that her employment with the city has changed her allegiance.

"We've had the same type of disagreements. From that perspective it's been okay," Stanton said.

In fact, communication between Main Street and the city has improved, he said.

"Being within sight and sound, she's exposed to things she's never been exposed to," Stanton said.

But Laura Lee Corbett, Florida Main Street Coordinator, said Main Street managers are not generally city employees. As not-for-profit organizations, Main Street associations want to have their own managers, Corbett said.

"The perception is sometimes that this is a government program, and that's certainly not the case," Corbett said. "So, when you a hire a city employee, that blurs the perception of what the association is."

Moore insists that she and the association do support the merchants.

"Anybody that relocates here has a liaison to the area through us. If they have questions we're their connection to the city. They have somebody fighting in their corner before they begin," Moore said.

Moore defends Main Street, saying change takes time. The association has found a volunteer to help maintain the site and is putting out a newsletter this month. And by the end of February, the association will send out a directory of 230 businesses in the district.

The group is doing its best to promote the redevelopment district, she said, with events, like the recent Art Hop, concerts, parades, holiday strolls and car shows that bring people to the district and raise funds for the association and the community.

"There are going to be times when a business is not going to see what Main Street is about," Moore said. "We can't focus on just one business. Main Street focuses on the community or area as a whole."

Besides, Moore said, the organization was designated as a National Main Street Community for the past two years. That means it met state and national Main Street standards, she said. Largo's association was one of about 520 organizations receiving that recognition in 2003.

Other merchants say they have no problems with the city or Moore. Matt Geren, owner of Bloomtown Florist on West Bay Drive, had only praise for them.

"Largo has been real helpful for us," Geren said. "Terry Moore has been great."

And Dr. Woody Brown, a chiropractor on West Bay Drive, said his business has been very successful since he settled in the district in May 2002.

"The city's been quite good at keeping everything looking nice," Brown said.

Both Corby and Martinez said they're starting to recognize that getting a lot more involved may help them.

They have been to a few of Main Street's breakfasts, which are chiefly social events. But neither has attended the meetings, held the third Monday of every other month.

"We're starting to realize we have to go to these meetings to get our voices heard," Martinez said.

And Corby said she trusts the association's new president.

"I feel change with Sam (Hunter). He doesn't make false promises to you," Corby said.

Sutton said there's only one solution to the woes on the street: dialogue.

"I think it will work. I think there are serious wrinkles that need to be worked out," Sutton said. "I think we need to find a level we can all communicate on."

- Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorri@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 16, 2004, 01:31:39]


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