TAMPA - Darrin Spardello had pushed eight quarters into an Ybor City parking meter before he realized the meter's time limit was an hour.
He figured that wouldn't be enough time for him and his wife, visiting from Palm Beach, to explore the shops and restaurants of the Centro Ybor entertainment complex. So they got back in the car and drove, looking for another place to park. They circled and circled until, by chance, they spotted the sign for the Centro Ybor parking garage.
While happy with the great lunch and pleasant outdoor stroll that followed, Spardello and his wife said the parking experience was frustrating.
"It was a challenge," he said.
It's the same frustration that has dogged Centro Ybor since it opened in 2000 - not to mention Ybor City's image as crime-plagued and infested with people searching for body piercing parlors and nickel beers.
In the aftermath of recent news that Centro Ybor's developers are in default of their loans, officials are unrolling a campaign to try to overcome Ybor's image problems and bring in the crowds.
A series of newspaper advertisements beginning this week will feature "accomplished" locals, like 2003 Civitan of the Year winner Liz Kennedy, expressing enthusiasm for Centro Ybor. By March, the campaign will move to radio and perhaps television, said Centro Ybor spokeswoman Lisa Brock.
Brock won't say how much the campaign will cost, only that it is "substantially more than we typically spend."
Centro officials want residents to think of Ybor City as safe and family friendly. They want people to know that parking is available, and that yes, Centro Ybor is here to stay.
"The key is to get the word out that it's a convenient place for dining and browsing," said Jay Miller, executive vice president of Steiner+
Associates, one of Centro Ybor's developers. "It's going to take some time."
On its opening weekend four years ago, Centro Ybor, with more than 200,000 square feet of retail space, drew about 100,000 people who caught a movie at the Muvico, played video games at GameWorks, drank martinis at Big City Tavern or watched dinner being grilled at dish.
Centro's backers celebrated and prepared to ride the big wave.
Then Channelside, not far away near the Florida Aquarium, and International Plaza, with its upscale shopping, opened. Both were stiff competition.
And, Centro would have to battle a rough image that Miller said was fueled by the granting of too many liquor licenses. Over time, bars and nightclubs edged out art galleries and retail shops in Ybor.
Almost four years after it opened, Centro Ybor, which was supposed to drive the revitalization of Ybor City, needed a $16.3-million multiyear bailout.
Those who track the industry say Centro Ybor was a difficult sell from the beginning because of Ybor City's reputation.
"I think Centro Ybor was off to a great start," said Lill Hanson, a retail specialist at Grubb & Ellis/Commercial Florida. "But it's going to take more than a couple of years to change Ybor City's image."
Despite the slow change, Hanson said, Centro Ybor was the catalyst for bringing more development to the area. With nearby apartments opening up and hotels coming, it's starting to have almost a French Quarter feel, she said. And slowly, people are coming.
"The problem is just changing the impression people have of Ybor," she said. "They have to educate people. I do think (the customers) are starting to come."
Centro is looking to several key renters to draw in crowds. Among them: the Improv comedy club, GameWorks, the International Bazaar shop, M.J. Barley Hoppers and Samurai Blue restaurants, and Muvico, with its 21-and-older Premier Theaters & Bar.
They aren't targeting anyone in particular, Brock said.
"It's more about having people understand it's not just a place for teenagers," she said. "There are businesses and activities and things to do beyond just Seventh Avenue. It's for kids who want to shop at Urban Outfitters, for singles looking for a date place, families looking for activities and entertainment."
Miller said the bar crowd doesn't emerge until 11 p.m. - people just don't realize it.
"Everybody thinks that Friday and Saturday nights, it's just packed, and hard to park," Miller said. "If you come to Ybor at 7:30 to 8 p.m. it's very easy to get in and out."
Despite its shaky financial foundation, Centro Ybor is not closing, said general manager Irene Pierpont.
The complex has leased more than 90 percent of its retail space, and some of its restaurants do well enough to serve food until 1 a.m.
"The world knows about Ybor City," Pierpont said. "The locals don't seem to support us as much. We're hoping to change that."
Pierpont admits parking can be confusing for those unfamiliar with the area, given the construction, one-way streets and parking meters that offer different times and rates. Centro officials are currently negotiating with the city to offer valet parking on Seventh Avenue.
Her advice is: valet park or use the Centro Ybor garage on 15th Street near Seventh Avenue.
Pierpont said a survey is being conducted on Ybor City to better understand its strengths and weakness. The results are expected to be published in March.
"It's a crucial time for us," she said.
Hanson, of Grubb & Ellis, believes Centro Ybor will bounce back.
"Because of Centro Ybor and what they (offer), Ybor City is cleaning up very quickly," she said. "It's going to take a while, but it's on its way."