Owner blamed for vacant storefronts
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 21, 2000
CLEARWATER -- The north side of the 500 block of Cleveland Street seems like a poster child for the argument that downtown is dying and needs some kind of redevelopment.
On that side of the street, all but two storefronts are empty. One afternoon last week, a homeless man was curled up sleeping in the doorway of one of the vacant shops.
But maybe this block isn't such a great example of downtown's plight.
Former tenants, downtown business owners and even a city administrator think that Kathy Panagoulias, who owns most of the buildings on the north side of Cleveland, may have as much to do with the storefront vacancies there as any economic trend.
"That lady is impossible, or that's my opinion," said Dino Zompanis, who owned a tailor shop in the block but moved across the street for cheaper rent and a more accommodating landlord. He says Panagoulias wouldn't give him a written, long-term lease.
Panagoulias, who has a home on Clearwater Beach, spoke from her other home in Chicago. Shesaid tenants who have left her Cleveland Street property were merely making business decisions.
"It's going to be almost full by Christmas," she said, adding that six of 10 spots are tentatively leased. "I'm in the process of fixing it up and trying to get long-term leases, have businesses that are going to be a little bit upscale."
But Zompanis said the property was "falling apart," with "air conditioning problems, one little tiny bathroom -- and the ceiling on the back room falling down.
"It was leaking all the time, and she never spent a dime," Zompanis said. "I said I don't mind to do the improvements, but at least give me some security, give me a lease."
The owner of the One Stoppe Shoppe, which also used to be in the Panagoulias property, says he moved after the landlady had suggested tripling his $2,000 monthly rent.
"I can't say anything that will get me in a lawsuit, and I don't have anything good to say," said Shoppe owner Paris Morfopoulos.
Michael's Door, a pricey furniture shop, also vacated the north side of the 500 block last year.
"When I rented the space in that building, I was promised things that never came to fruition," said the business' owner, Charles Gardner. "Concessions weren't made and I left."
Panagoulias' only current tenant, newsstand owner George Kelly, said that since Panagoulias bought most of the north side of the block five years ago for $550,000, most tenants haven't stayed long and several storefronts have been vacant.
Panagoulias says having a vacant property isn't a crime.
She said it is unfair to highlight only her property when a few other properties also are vacant downtown.
She said she's no absentee landlord. In fact, she said, she has been coming to Clearwater for years. Her family once owned a motel on Clearwater Beach, where she still has a home, and she cares a lot about downtown's success.
She thinks Michael's Door didn't have the sales it needed downtown, while the One Stoppe Shoppe's owner had a chance to move into a building he owned.
That wasn't her fault, she said.
Panagoulias admits that she has raised rents to try to pay off a mortgage on the building and other taxes. But she denies the increases were drastic.
Now, she says, she is doing her best to fill the north side of Cleveland with new stores.
Potential new shops include a Moroccan coffeehouse, an imported gift store and flamenco dance dinner theater, she said. Panagoulias says she has an architect working to apply for city grants to renovate the facades of the building.
City officials are relieved to see some effort being made, because the block has been a concern. The 500 block presents a gap in shopping along the street, with little appeal to pedestrians, said Bob Keller, an assistant city manager for economic development.
"That's clearly the worst block," said Keller, assessing the downtown streetscape.
Keller says his department has often tried but failed to bring potential tenants to Panagoulias in an effort to improve Cleveland Street. "I think that in the American system that property owners have a lot of leeway with what they do with their property," Keller said. "Kathy has danced with a lot of people, but they don't wind up coming into the property."
When Panagoulias purchased the bulk of the north side of Cleveland's 500 block -- except for a property containing a blood bank -- it was full of stores, said Colin Robertson Jr., who represented a family trust that sold the property to her.
The property had been in his family for years, Robertson said, dating back to when his great-great-grandfather was working to bring a railroad through Clearwater.
"It was hard, but when we owned the building, our building was full, and it was the other side of the street that was vacant," said Robertson from his office in Annapolis, Md. "For the most part it was always full."
Panagoulias, however, said she thinks that it has been hard to keep the property successful because of conditions downtown. There is little foot traffic on many days. The city has waffled on when it will begin a street beautification project.
Paul Gibson says he agrees that the downtown environment isn't friendly to business.
Gibson looks daily at Panagoulias' property from the office he rents across the street. There he runs a hot dog cart empire that grosses $5-million annually in sales. He tried to keep a small hot dog business open in Clearwater, but it failed, he said, for lack of sales.
Gibson, who has been an enthusiastic supporter of downtown redevelopment plans, says that he believes the vacant storefronts aren't totally Panagoulias' fault.
"There's no way to run a retail business without customers," Gibson said. "I think it's an indication that it's hard for retail to stand on its own."
Gibson still maintains that the city will have to create a big redevelopment project downtown to bring more foot traffic -- and make it easier to rent vacant storefronts.
Gardner, the head of Michael's Door, said more foot traffic would have been a good thing for his store. But the issues involving his business went beyond that, he said.
Parking was difficult. Unloading and loading furniture was awkward on Cleveland. And despite major improvements he was making to his business, his landlord didn't do a good job with the rest of the building, Gardner said.
"I was told that all the space would be rented, but it never evolved," Gardner said. "Do you know what it's like to run a business in a building that's vacant? It's a faux pax. It's not a good thing."
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