Main Street, FLA

Hopes and headaches as a beach town braces for a slow summer

click to enlarge HIDDEN TREASURE: "So many times I've [heard] locals say they've never been to this street, and that just amazes me," says Vincent Cianciola, owner of Vincent William Gallery Inc. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
HIDDEN TREASURE: "So many times I've [heard] locals say they've never been to this street, and that just amazes me," says Vincent Cianciola, owner of Vincent William Gallery Inc.

Vincent Cianciola of the Vincent William Gallery predicts three weeks. Brenda Snider of Duets gives it two. Yvonne Marcus of Art Expo says St. Pete Beach's tourist season ended after Easter.

Already, the slowdown on Corey Avenue's palm tree-lined street is noticeable. Located just off the Corey Causeway, the quaint shopping strip on the northern end of St. Pete Beach bustles during peak tourist months. But signs of season's end are already apparent. Only a few locals stroll down the sidewalks, rarely pausing to window-shop. Parking spaces empty by midday. Some stores close early. Retailers sit at their counters hunched over magazines, waiting for the ding of their doors to jolt them out of doldrums. As the summer months wear on, stores like Buttons, Bangles and Beads will see fewer families browsing aisles. The Lemuria shop will sell less coffee, and the napkins on Manga's tables will remain neatly folded. Even the Beach Memorial funeral home, according to the manager, is, ahem, dead.

"I have days where I literally don't see anyone in here," Cianciola shares. "I think of it as hibernating. You gather up all your food or whatever, and that's the money to use through summer."

Longtime business owners like Cianciola have learned to roll with the summer slowdown. After 14 years of operating his stained-glass gallery, he's used to the cyclical changes: June through September, he says, is the slump; November through February is a blur.

But it's the long-term future of this 70-year-old historic shopping district that has Cianciola vigilant, because beyond the changing seasons, there is another transition occurring on Corey Avenue. In an area that rarely saw vacancies 10 years ago, empty spaces now dot the street. Property taxes have caused rents on small boutiques to rise exponentially. As longtime stores close — the decades-old Five and Dime store closed last month — some merchants pin hopes on a local movie house, the Beach Theatre, a neighborhood institution under new ownership. On the east end, abandoned motels and restaurants blight property worth millions. On the west end, where Corey meets the Gulf, condo developers vie for control of the waterfront. And in between, retailers struggle to find their identity: 1950s Main Street or 21st-century shopping destination?

"Summer has struck," says a 50ish fellow with Coke-bottle sunglasses after stepping into the air-conditioned Scotty's British Pantry. "It sure is hot out there."

That makes Felipe Aguas a little nervous. The 26-year-old native Colombian bought the Pantry last year — bad timing considering last summer was one of the worst for business in over 30 years. ("My hair started falling out," Aguas confides.)

The Pantry, like many of the businesses along Corey, has been around for decades, changing owners but not focus. Aguas shows me a framed photo of the store from 30 years ago, when it was called Scotty's News Smoke Shop and situated across the street.

If you block out the new cars and traffic signals, and a few of the more contemporary stores, Corey Avenue looks much the same way it did then — wide sidewalks, pastel-colored awnings, venerable stucco. Roberta Whipple, a third-generation resident who grew up in St. Pete Beach during the 1950s and 60s, can easily rattle off the changes in stores along the road: The post office used to be an art gallery; the Wine Shop recently opened in a building that has variously housed a bank, a former mayor's confederate money museum and a "head shop;" City Hall used to be an amusement park.

But on the east end, near Boca Ciega Bay, Corey Avenue takes a drastic turn from historic to derelict. Charlie's Transmission and the Blue Parrot bar and grill sit alone under the shadow of the Corey Causeway. Sitting at the bar with a beer in hand, Blue Parrot owner Frank Theisen says he doesn't worry about the summer; his business dropped off after a developer bought most of the property surrounding the two businesses last year.

Corey Landings LLC had proposed a mixed-use project including a marina, hotel and condos, but after a divisive redevelopment controversy last year, the project was stalled. Leverocks seafood restaurant closed and other businesses cleared out, leaving abandoned motels with broken windows and gutted bars. After St. Pete Beach voters won a measure in November giving them the right to approve certain projects, they used their newfound clout last month to vote Corey Landings down. A similar situation transpired on the street's west end.

"Now the link is sort of broken," Theisen says. Tourist traffic from other Corey Avenue shops has slowed to a trickle. "They come down here, take one look and head back."

With the downturn in the economy and residents' fear of condo development, City Manager Mike Bonfield says the area will probably remain deserted for some time.

"I don't see broad redevelopment of the area until we get some kind of plan together," he says.

Talk of development brings pained faces from most of the retailers on Corey Avenue, reminding them of the days last fall when stores silently battled one another with "Vote Yes" and "Vote No" signs in their windows. There's still an ever-present distrust of St. Pete Beach city government.

"It's going to be an ongoing war," says Cianciola, who was approached by city officials last year to buy his property as part of a proposed mixed-use development in the heart of historic Corey Avenue that would have taken his building and a few others. The city eventually abandoned that proposal like the others, but a battle of philosophies still reigns.

"People love this area for what it is now, not the condos," Cianciola says, Tony Bennett crooning from his stereo. "This could continue to be a 1950s jewel."

Others, like Aguas, say change is inevitable.

"The world is changing and you have to move with it," Aguas says, adding that a tourist attraction like John's Pass is needed. "You can't be stuck in the 1950s in 2007. Would you drive a model-T or a 2005?"

If there is one thing that is giving business owners hope in a tough season, it's the 67-year-old Beach Theatre and new owner Michael France. The St. Petersburg native, a noted screenwriter (Hulk, Fantastic Four, The Punisher, Goldeneye), bought the aging independent movie theater last month for $800,000, vowing extensive renovations. He wants to turn the clock back to the days when families and teenagers came from all over the beaches to watch a new movie.

He's already installed digital sound and a new video projector, and promises new seats by the end of the summer. But France's most radical shift is his decision to play mainstream blockbuster movies during the summer. He says the decision just makes good business sense: independent films typically drop off the distribution map after Oscar season, while the bigger production companies release their favorites in the summer. Plus, while a typical indie movie might bring in 20 to 30 people a showing, he expects to see crowds closer to capacity (247) for Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and Transformers.

His decision could yield another effect: It could attract larger (and local) crowds to the area during the usually deserted summer months.

"That kind of increased traffic coming in is only going to be good for everyone," he says.

For the rest of the block, France's fresh ideas seem to be cooling merchant jitters. Aguas' Pantry opened last Sunday to take advantage of a special matinee at the theater; Ciancialo calls the Beach "the biggest asset on this street."

"That's our shining star right now," he adds.

After a recent meeting of the Corey Area Business Association, storeowners lingered on the empty street, talking about ways to bring locals to the strip during the summer.

Yvonne Marcus of Art Expo, a retailer on the block for 29 years, said partnering with the Beach, sponsoring wine tastings and bringing in stores that target a younger audience could put Corey Avenue on an upward trend.

"We definitely have to find ways to get people in downtown St. Pete to realize they can go to the beach and experience something different," she said.

In the meantime, this retailer has a request for the rest of Tampa Bay barreling down the Corey Causeway to the Gulf beaches: "Don't blow past us."

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