Dealers fear antiques may be obsolete in Arcadia

Business owners are divided over developing a more lively downtown or saving what the town is famous for.

Published July 30, 2006

ARCADIA - On this point, everyone agrees: antiques have been very good to Arcadia.

Dealers and collectors from all over Florida flock to the many downtown shops, giddy at the sight of so much Roseville pottery, vintage clothing and '50s kitchenware packed into one quaint and walkable area.

By the time Hurricane Charley ripped through DeSoto County two years ago, Arcadia had become one of the state's premier antique districts. Charley heavily damaged some of the stores, but most have reopened and business is nearly back to normal

Now, though, Arcadia faces a different kind of tempest, one swirling in many parts of Florida as the forces of development clash with the yearning for small-town charm.

Some building owners say Arcadia can't live on antiques alone and needs a greater variety of businesses. Within the past few weeks, downtown has gained a new bookstore and a coffee shop with espresso and cappuccino. Plans are underway for an upscale inn.

Once the antique stores close in the afternoon, "it's dead here," says Martha Craven, who with her husband is renovating several historic buildings. "I want to see people walking on the streets in the evening. You can't have a living city if people aren't living there."

But some of the antique dealers fear diversification will push up rents and drive out the very businesses that draw so many visitors to Arcadia. They have split with the main downtown development association and recently started their own group to better promote the antique and collectibles trade.

"We want to preserve what we have here, which is so many shops in one area," says Cindy Long, president of the new Antique Association of Arcadia. "The reason people come to this town is for the antique shops."

Depending on how you look at it, Arcadia is either in the middle of nowhere or centrally located.

To get here, you have to drive miles and miles over two-lane roads, past vast stretches of undeveloped land where cattle and horses outnumber people. But Arcadia is just two hours or less from Tampa Bay, Naples and the state's east coast, making it a perfect day trip for those seeking a bit of Old Florida and one-of-a-kind shopping.

"I thought it was a wonderful little town and it had so much potential," says Mary Sheppard, owner of Mary's Attic. "You can park your car for the day without moving it, shop all day and have a wonderful lunch."

Sheppard moved from Sarasota 13 years ago, at a time when Arcadia was still best known for its Watermelon Festival and Fourth of July rodeo. Many of its historic buildings - most dating back to 1906, the year after a fire destroyed much of downtown - were vacant and in disrepair. But folks afflicted with the antiques bug will go far and wide in search of treasures and a cycle began - more buyers led to more shops led to more buyers.

"Antiques people have a way of getting the word out," Sheppard says, unfolding a garishly patterned rug she was about to put on display. "Every day, it grew better."

Then came Aug. 13, 2004. Hurricane Charley took a surprise right turn, slashing through Central Florida and Arcadia's antique district. The 110-mph winds ripped off roofs, sending a cascade of water over old Raggedy Ann dolls and vintage linens. The entire facade of one building tumbled onto the store across the street, shattering windows and expensive glassware.

Charley's toll was uneven. Sheppard, whose store lost an awning and carpeting, was fully insured and reopened within a few weeks. Other dealers were closed for almost a year.

"A lot of people did struggle, and there was so much bad publicity that it hindered our coming back," she says. "It was portrayed that we were wiped off the map."

Business has rebounded to about 85 percent of pre-Charley levels, although rising gas prices are having an effect. Of even greater concern to some dealers, though, are the different businesses starting to creep in.

"It will eventually destroy this town," predicts dealer Robert Judd.

Leading the push to diversify downtown is Martha Craven, who owned an events planning business in Charleston, S.C., before retiring to a waterfront home in Punta Gorda. On a visit to Arcadia a few years ago, her husband Chuck saw a long-closed cafe for sale and announced he had always wanted to run "a little mom-and-pop" restaurant.

The Cravens purchased Wheeler's Cafe, which has since reopened. They are renovating another old building where they hope to have a 12-room boutique hotel ready by Christmas. And they live on the second floor of yet another downtown building they own. Once a Goodwill store, it now houses their Last Chapter Bookstore and Coffee House, which features a huge mahogany fireplace moved in five pieces from Boca Raton.

The Cravens' vision of downtown doesn't end there. Martha Craven would like to rent out space for small, start-up businesses.

"We need a dress store, a shoe store, we need a lot of things. I think Arcadia is getting ready to bust wide open right now. That means the place will change, but we hope it will change for the better."

Craven is among the leaders of Arcadia's chapter of the Main Street Association, a nationwide organization aimed at revitalizing historic downtowns. The group raised money to redo a city park and plant new trees along Oak Street, the heart of the antique district. But Craven complains that some of the antiques and collectible shops keep quirky hours that don't promote the steady flow of business that downtown needs if it is to flourish.

"We can't get the stores to cooperate," she says.

For their part, some of the antique dealers feel the Main Street Association has ignored them and their substantial contribution to the town. They say the association has shut them out of meetings and isn't devoting enough money to promoting antiques.

Six weeks ago, they formed an organization limited to antique stores. It already has 14 members - the town has 30 or so shops - and plans an appraisal day and auction Aug. 19 to raise money for an extensive advertising campaign.

Algie Didlaukies, who specializes in fine stemware at her shop, Glass Antiques or Not II, has membership in both groups. She moved from Dania in South Florida - "it wasn't interested in antiques anymore" - and hopes Arcadia will stay "the charming, quaint friendly town that it is."

Yet Didlaukies thinks the antique district could be better integrated with the rest of the community, especially during special occasions like the rodeo.

"Everyone should work together to complete the script for Arcadia that has now been established," she says.

City officials acknowledge they have no grand plan for downtown beyond preserving as many of its fine old buildings as possible. To that end, they credit Martha and Chuck Craven for their revitalization efforts. Although Arcadia's population of 6,800 has remained relatively flat, City Administrator Ed Strube agrees with the couple that the area is on the verge of a boom, one that will inevitably drive up real estate prices and affect the character of downtown.

The city's assessed value has already jumped 40 percent since Hurricane Charley.

"Your inland communities are going to be the next frontier because there is very little left on the coast," Strube says. "When you see the explosive growth happening southwest of us in Fort Myers and Collier County, that's all moving inland and it can only go so far."

What many call progress has already come in the form of Wal-Mart and other big-box stores. But Strube notes that Arcadia's downtown, like thousands of others across the country, suffered after Wal-Mart moved in and took much of the retail trade.

"The only types of business that might be able to survive downtown have a special market niche and the antiques stores seem to be filling that right now," he says. "Whether they can coexist with other businesses, we'll have to see."

Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.