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    Merchants push for downtown Largo change

    About two dozen expressed concern about the slow pace of redevelopment in the city.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2001


    LARGO -- A group of frustrated business owners lashed out at city commissioners Monday, suggesting they have dragged their feet in revitalizing downtown.

    "I want this done. I'm losing my shirt," said Bruce Bevis, owner of Largo Quick Print at 508 West Bay Drive. "I've been here 20 years and I'm tired of it."

    Bevis was one of about two dozen area merchants who criticized the city's downtown redevelopment efforts during a lunch meeting held by the Downtown Largo Main Street Association.

    The group said they had grown tired of hearing hollow promises from City Hall about what would be done in the future to bring restaurants and other businesses into the area.

    Bevis thought his print shop would be thriving by now. He envisioned working with new businesses that would need his services. Instead, Bevis has had to use profits from the print shop to pay rent for a grocery store he owns along West Bay Drive. The business, Downtown Drive-Thru, struggled badly once a road widening project began last spring along West Bay Drive, and Bevis has had to shut it down until construction is completed.

    Other business owners have been similarly perplexed with the city's approach.

    "It's the commission's job to get this done," said Ron Poole, owner of Ron's Art & Frames on Missouri Avenue. "It's time to take them to task."

    The rising impatience among business owners comes as commissioners and city staff finalize a list of objectives for the downtown corridor and the former City Hall site. Merchants on Monday liked much of what they saw in the two redevelopment plans the city is considering. They just wish commissioners would pick a developer to make the vision reality. Now.

    "They need to do it while there is still an opportunity for development," said Jim Parker, owner of Parker Properties at 610 West Bay Drive.

    Mayor Bob Jackson said he understood the criticism and slung a verbal jab at City Manager Steven Stanton, who has supported a cautious approach to selling the now-abandoned City Hall site to a developer.

    "I think it's been a slow process and I think staff wants it that way," he said.

    Stanton disagreed.

    "The thing that has slowed this down is, there is no consensus," he said. "Ultimately, if it is going to be a success, it must be championed by those affected by it. It cannot be driven by staff."

    The city has focused its efforts on revitalizing West Bay Drive between Missouri Avenue and Clearwater-Largo Road. The business owners suggested the city bring a restaurant like Carrabba's and a CVS pharmacy to that area. They also proposed creating a place just south of West Bay Drive for people to gather when they are downtown.

    "You have to have a gathering place where people can go outside and eat or walk or have a cigarette," said Downtown Largo Main Street Association Manager Terry Moore. "You have to have that."

    Moore said she hoped to discuss the issues with commissioners.

    City officials and commissioners have talked about working with a developer to build on the former City Hall site for more than two years. In that time, one developer withdrew his proposal, another proposal was set aside by city officials and the most recent one was soundly rejected by commissioners last September for having too many rental units.

    At a January meeting, Community Development Director Ric Goss presented sketches of what the area could look like. That vision includes small shops, restaurants and an overpass linking downtown and Largo Central Park.

    Mayor Bob Jackson also has presented a plan, which is similar to Goss'. The biggest difference is that businesses would front West Bay Drive. They would be set back under Goss' vision for the area.

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