tampabay.com

No signs? Well, then, no customers

By TIMES WIRES
Published November 20, 2006


As Cleveland Street construction crews continue the city's downtown revitalization effort, some business owners wonder if they'll still be open by the time work along the once-busy street is completed late next year.

They say the city needs to give them some type of relief because the heavy construction to widen the road and repave the sidewalks is driving customers away.

Specifically, many business owners say they want the city to lift its sign code ordinance that restricts them from displaying banners temporarily on the outside of their buildings. They say every little bit of advertising helps, and those banners could be crucial in bringing more customers through their doors.

The city, though, has no intention of changing the code or even ignoring it. Clearwater will put up its own banners in the downtown area, telling visitors what is open.

"So they're saying we can't put up banners, but they can," said Michael Webb, who opened Annie Rose Deli in March. "Why don't they just let us leave up our banners? (Their plan) is just utterly stupid. It's like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg."

Worry not, Brandon mall work on schedule

Want to know when the whine of power tools will wind down at Westfield Brandon mall? Spokeswoman Taylor Clifton says the $50-million expansion that will bring new stores, restaurants and outdoor fountains is on schedule and due to open in March.

Clifton said that the mall is slowly regaining the parking spaces blocked off by construction. This month, she said, 100 spaces were freed up; more are expected soon.

"So during the holiday season we're going to be pretty good as far as parking goes," she said.

To help things along, she said, the mall will have a new program: a shuttle service.

Four extra-long golf carts will patrol the parking lot, swooping up shoppers and depositing them at the mall entrances. They'll also carry weary shoppers back to their cars. The service will start the day after Thanksgiving and run through Christmas Eve.

Class is in session: 'Visit Citrus 101'

Citrus County's tourism promoters know that knowledge is power, and they have a plan to make many of their front-line troops much more powerful in the future.

Officials with the Citrus County Visitors and Convention Bureau have unveiled a plan to offer a class they call "Visit Citrus 101" to local tourism-related businesses. The class will arm those at the front desks of hotels and dive shops, restaurants and gift shops with a wide knowledge of what Citrus has to offer visitors.

"Our whole goal here is to arm them with information to better answer visitor questions and ... entice visitors to stay longer or return," said Mary Craven, tourism development manager.

The class, which will first be offered in May, will include lessons about how the Visitors and Convention Bureau can help, detailed information about activities and attractions available in the area and training in customer service to provide as much help as possible to the visitors.

Grand Central owners rejoice in revival

Grand Central District property owners credit many factors for the areas dramatic revival, especially a rezoning of the area between Interstate 275 and 31st Street. A similar change for other city corridors goes into effect next year.

Grand Central's "urban village" zoning codified the historical uses of the area: a mix of shops, offices and residences. With its success firmly established, applying similar zoning to 22nd Street S and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and several other corridors could revitalize those areas.

"The zoning was the first step," said City Council member Jeff Danner, whose political career started in cleaning up the Central corridor.

Change flowed from community activism but also from a plan called Central Avenue Tomorrow, prepared by Orlando consulting firm Glatting Jackson. The Central Avenue Tomorrow plan restored the mix and also calmed traffic to encourage shopping.

"People are discovering that with small sacrifices in traffic efficiency, large amounts of community livability are gained," said Pete Sechler of Glatting Jackson.

Building bust's pain is isolated so far

Michael Cremeans opened his business in March this year with $50,000 and a whole bunch of hope. His Owl's Nest Cafe was smack in the heart of Pasco Professional Place, a New Port Richey building that is the headquarters for developer Lexington Homes. Last month, his hopes died. He had to close his cafe after Lexington Homes laid off 80 of its 135 employees.

"I depended a lot on Lexington," he said. "Every Tuesday morning, Lexington would buy breakfast for all its staff. Then the building emptied out. At some point, I said, 'I've got to stop the bleeding.' "

Cremeans could be a poster child for how the residential market slowdown is sweeping through the broader economy.

Except he's not - or not yet, anyway.

Pasco, like much of the Tampa Bay area, is showing a surprising resilience in its overall job market even as its largest industry stumbles. State figures show the county is adding jobs, now at 177,988, up from 172,112 this time last year.

Other mom-and-pop businesses in and around Pasco Professional Place say they have not suffered a slowdown after Lexington's hefty job cuts. Old-timers in the industry point out that this slowdown is not nearly as severe as the broad-based recession of the late 1980s. The jury is out on how far and deep the economic effects of the housing downturn will go.

County conference seeks solutions

Pasco County residents are learning a hard lesson: This used to be an affordable place for families and young professionals to live. It's not anymore.

Rising taxes and homeowners insurance have local nonprofits and city governments addressing the housing crisis.

The Pasco County Community Development Division and the county's Coalition for the Homeless are planning a Jan. 11 conference on affordable housing. Organizers hope to gather local and state officials to work on a long-term plan to address housing issues, from insurance to homelessness.

"There are so many housing problems in this county," said George Romagnoli, Pasco's Community Development manager and conference organizer. "There's a question of affordability. Our wages have not kept up as far as Pinellas and Hillsborough. There's insurance, the sinkhole problem ... a lot of the solutions involve money, so we need to think outside the box and get money from the private sector."