In Largo, making way for new Lowe's
By MICHAEL SANDLER
LARGO -- The ghostly whistle of a vacant shopping center frightens the average investor. But when Stu Lieberman first walked through the parking lot of Ulmeridge Market, he heard coins clinking into washing machines.
Lieberman predicted that a big company would take over the abandoned Kash n' Karry site at Ulmerton and Ridge roads and transform the dilapidated strip mall into a cash machine.
Savvy investors buy in early. So 21/2 years ago, Lieberman signed a five-year lease on a large corner site. He bought enough new washers and dryers to fill the place and opened Washing Well laundry in what others considered a haven for vagrants.
"When I took it over, I got a good deal on the place," he said. "I expected to be here for a long time."
Lieberman was right about the prospects of the property. He just did not figure a big player might exclude him from the pot.
But that's likely to happen next year when Lowe's Home Improvement Store, one of the nation's largest retail chains, purchases the center as well as 5 adjacent acres. Instead of moving into the vacant Kash n' Karry, Lowes plans to drive out the tenants, tear down the center and build its traditionally mammoth complex on the entire 10 acres.
"Ever since (Kash n' Karry) moved out, there was always rumors that someone would move in," said Mark Weber, who has run Your Pizza Shop the past nine years and recently borrowed $25,000 to remodel his fast-food restaurant into a sports bar.
"If I knew Lowe's would move in, I would not have borrowed the money," he said.
A new Lowe's will be a boon to Largo, bringing hundreds of new jobs and erasing an eyesore frequented by squatters, drifters and crime. Even the adjacent Regal mobile home park welcomes the new neighbor, hoping it will drive down home invasions and burglaries.
But what will happen to Weber, Lieberman and the few other tenants?.
"That's not a hard question," said Doug Raley, who manages the property for the owner of the shopping center. "The new owners will settle their leases with them, if and when this deal is done. (But) this deal is not done."
Mike Reynolds, the site developer for Lowe's, said a contract is pending and the company plans to negotiate the termination of leases. He didn't offer specifics.
Ric Goss, Largo's community development director, said the city can help the tenants relocate to Main Street, where a downtown revitalization program seeks new businesses. Largo can even offer some financial assistance, should they decide to purchase old properties that need renovations. He said the city could pay 100 percent of the interest on a loan, up to $105,000.
Lieberman has some leverage. He signed a five-year lease in 1999 that won't expire until April 2004. Unless Lowe's compensates him for his loss, he will seek to ride out the lease.
"I'm having customers come in and say, "I hear you are moving,' " said Lieberman. "I say, "I'm not moving.' "
That said, he will eventually need a new location for the full-service laundry and dry cleaners. That would be tough enough, but Lieberman said his largest inconvenience may come when he has to move his 38 coin-operated washing machines and 26 dryers. That will be expensive, especially if he must pay impact fees to move them to an area not approved for commercial use.
He and his neighbors first learned of Lowe's plans last fall, when a stranger walked into his laundry.
"A developer for Lowe's comes in at the end of September and showed me some blueprints," said Lieberman, leaning on his counter. Pausing for a moment, he looked down at his feet and said: "This is going to be the center of Lowe's. The way his blue prints looked, this may be his driveway."
Lowe's went before the Largo City Commission this month seeking land use change on the adjacent 5 acres, a necessary first step before acquiring the property. After that, it will need permits before construction can begin. The store could be ready by 2003.
That won't help Weber. His lease expires in August.
For years, he bet on the space once occupied by Kash n' Karry. When the supermarket was open, his pizza buffet benefitted from the high volume. When the supermarket closed, he replaced the food line with a big-screen television. He bought smaller TVs for the walls, replaced the air conditioning and revamped the business into a destination for sports fans.
"I've had customers walk in and think they walked in the wrong door," he said about the changes.
Now, he must find the next door. He's been talking with Terry Moore, manager of Largo's Downtown Mainstreet Association.
"I've been trying to find him a location in our downtown district for some months now," said Moore. "I've been unsuccessful."
Then there's Higher Ground Church, a Full Gospel congregation with about 80 parishioners. Debbie Kennedy, the pastor's wife, said the church will be forced to move to its fourth location in as many years. Its lease expires next year.
"It's all been word of mouth and then your customers find out," said Lieberman, who has hired an attorney to represent him. "Until the deal is signed in blood, the don't say anything."
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