CLEARWATER — With the $10 million renovation of the Capitol Theatre now complete and a push to raise funding for a new aquarium under way, things should be looking up for businesses in the downtown district.
But a closer look at the ongoing transformation of the Cleveland Street corridor from Clearwater Beach's little brother into a major residential and tourist destination reveals a number of issues, perceived and real, that have some merchants worried and others closing up shop.
One business owner said the new attractions are great for one section of the district, but they're not necessarily benefiting everyone.
“All the businesses here on the 600 block of Cleveland Street are completely ignored,” said Lindsay Galto, owner of Daddy's Girl Gourmet Deli. “Everything is down the other end — the farmer's market, the Capitol, the Dolphin Tale exhibit, Blast Friday. So even though they say the improvements are for the whole district, down here we don't think that's the case.”
But the problems aren't necessarily relegated to the east end of the corridor.
Café 421, which was two doors down from the theater, closed recently. In a letter to the city, the landlord cited a lack of parking and the constant presence of homeless people as reasons the restaurant failed.
“This business owner tried to make a go of it, but after struggling financially for three years he was unable to maintain a business in downtown Clearwater,” property owner Terry Tsafatinos wrote. “He blames the city, and I totally agree with him.”
City officials say the changes taking place downtown are all part of a plan designed to benefit everybody, not just a select group of people near the district's epicenter.
“We look at the downtown area as a much larger area than just the Cleveland Street district,” Assistant Planning and Development Director Gina Clayton explained. “Our plan governs 500 acres, from the waterfront to Drew Street, and Highland Avenue to Court Street.
“But we recognize that the Cleveland Street district is the heart of the downtown corridor. And we believe the addition of these new and renovated venues, combined with a recent uptick in sales of residential properties, will benefit everybody who lives and works in the area.”
Indeed, the key to downtown's rebirth could be tied to the continued improvement of the local real estate market.
According to one real estate professional, condo sales not only are on the rise, but nearly all the available units in the area that have been purchased are being used as permanent or secondary residences for locals, and not as commodities to be flipped for profit.
“Water's Edge is nearly sold out, there are new developments going in that are already getting presale interest,” said broker Nick Anderson of High Point Realty. “There's not a lot of inventory of nice residential property here, so when something goes in, demand is going up.
“There's a real demand for condos here. People like it here, and they want to stay here.”
Anne Fogarty-France, who works with downtown merchants in the city's economic development department, echoed Anderson's view. She said the mix of existing condos and the addition of new rental apartments make the area a desirable destination for those who want to live in a burgeoning downtown setting.
“Private projects such as Water's Edge and Station Square condominium projects have resulted in more residents locating here than ever before,” she said in an e-mail. “Additional residents are expected when the Prospect Lake project breaks ground this spring, bringing 247 market-rate rental units to the district. And when The Skyview project breaks ground, it will add 51 condominium units.
“The downtown area currently has 23 high-tech companies with approximately 800 employees. These employees eat downtown and shop downtown. Our goal is for downtown to be a destination.”
At least one local merchant believes the future of the downtown district is bright.
Tony Starova, owner of Tony's Pizzeria & Ristorante across the street from the Capitol Theatre, thinks the area is a prime spot for future growth; he recently opened another establishment, the Capitol Beer House, next door to take advantage of the big crowds the renovated theater is expected to generate.
“I've been here eight years,” he said. “I've been through the streetscaping project, expanded to a new location, and I've got nothing but positive reactions from people about the area.
“The night the Capitol reopened, I had the best Wednesday night I've ever had. When Dolphin Tale opened, I experienced a 70 percent increase in business. The economic impact is huge. I have no doubt you will see a different downtown in the next three to four years.”
Starova, who serves on the board of the Downtown Clearwater Merchants Association, said the elements are in place to make the district a bustling success story. All that's needed is for everybody else to buy in.
“We have the complete package here — the Capitol Theatre, Coachman Park, the Dolphin Tale exhibit, Blast Friday,” he said. “You don't go to somewhere like downtown Dunedin or St. Pete with one place in mind. You're going to an area. We have that here. All we need is businesses, bars and people.”
But after years of stops and starts, changes and promises, others remain skeptical not only of the area ever becoming a destination, but that the city is doing all it can to help every business thrive.
“I thought the downtown district would help bring people here, but so far that hasn't been the case,” Galto said. “They want us to support the theater and the aquarium, but why not support us first?
“This is a beautiful area. Hopefully the city will get more involved and start helping these businesses. Because if these businesses close, all that will be left is the Dolphin Tale exhibit.”