Published in Creative Loafing Sarasota, May 26, 2009
Driving around Sarasota-Manatee, the bright yellow “For Lease” signs are impossible to miss; the placards dot empty windows north and south, east and west. A Main Street storefront empties almost every week. Freaky Tiki, Wonderland, The Fitting Room… the list keeps growing. St. Armand’s just lost Maus Hoffman and Optional Art — two longtime locals. Fast Track, An Exceptional Florist and Thomas Vernon Brown Antiques: Burns Court shops no more. The South Trail has full strip malls completely void of life, and the North Trail heading into Bradenton isn’t much better.
The Bradenton Herald reported recently that delinquency rates and defaults on office and retail buildings have more than doubled in the past six months, and that, combined, Sarasota and Manatee counties currently possess over 1.7 million square feet of empty retail space. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports that Sarasota County saw a 9 percent drop in the total number of businesses in the 2007-2008 fiscal year. Florida’s import/export businesses saw their sales decrease 62 percent in 2008 and overall business investment in the Sarasota-Manatee market fell by 13.1 percent.
And those desparing figures aren’t just numbers.
Ofer Levy, owner of Phasion with Pashion, had to break his lease at 1540 Main Street and feels that some building owners are out of touch. “Landlords don’t expect to get hurt,” he says. “It’s not my fault; the economy kicked me out. For two and a half years I paid in full and on time. You don’t have to be mean about it.”
Jurgen Wochnik, owner of O’Malley’s Pub, shut his doors last week. The German native opened his pub at 1359 Main Street just over two years ago and lasted longer than any previous tenant in the upstairs location. Dealing with the city was a headache from the start. “Because of the city I couldn’t open until April 4, so I missed the whole busy month of March and St. Paddy’s Day,” says Wochnik. “I waited around six weeks and then the guy came to sign the permit and it took about two minutes. I said, ‘Are you kidding?’”
The city told Wochnik he couldn’t put his logo on the elevator door that grants access to his pub because it was considered a wall. He was also fined for putting up banners. The only exposure he was allowed? A small wooden hanging sign. “I was like, ‘Come on, how do you expect us to survive here?’ It goes on and on what the city makes you do to jump through hoops, but they have the power, you know. If the rules don’t change, the economy is going to ruin downtown.”
Barry Seidel, a commercial real estate specialist with American Property Group, was Wochnik’s landlord and felt sad to see him go. Nevertheless, Seidel remains optimistic about the local marketplace. “Every time a door closes another one opens,” he says. “There is no question that this is a reset. In a lot of ways it’s exciting. There’s no development going on, but that’s going to change. This is a blip. We’re running with more vacancies than we normally do, but there is more interest in those properties. We’re busier now going into summer and there’s no question that we will be busy coming out of summer.”
Seidel’s optimism doesn’t extend to the city commissioners, who he feels need to start listening to business owners. He is a huge proponent of a conference center downtown and is befuddled that commissioners can’t see the benefits. “A conference center that will bring professionals … might resolve a lot of our open storefronts,” he says. “Everybody downtown will get help from it. The North Trail will get fixed up, the airport will get a boost, and projects like The Proscenium will get built. Sometimes commissioners need to stop and think. We have good commissioners but they need to listen to the business community — they know how to make money. At this point in this reset, if we don’t offer something different we will just be another small town.”
Denise Kowal owns the Herald Square building in Burns Court and believes the current problems are far worse than just a seasonal downturn. “I’ve owned my building for 24 years and it’s one of the hardest times I’ve ever had to fill the building,” she says. “I’m at the point where if I could just get good business in I’d be happy. It’s definitely not a seasonal thing; we have experienced a big drop downtown.”
Kowal also sees big problems with the city commissioners’ handling of development issues. “We don’t have a commission right now that supports growth and business. The commission voted against buying Michael Saunders’ lot on the corner of Laurel and Orange to build parking. That’s what people think about when they’re moving in: ‘Is there parking for people?’ The roundabout on Ringling and Pineapple is huge because it makes the walk nice from downtown. But instead they’re doing the Palm Avenue roundabout first, which I can’t comprehend because it’s already nice.”
She believes the commissioners need to educate themselves on urban planning and business development before they cast their votes. “They don’t look at the big picture because they’re not educated or trained. You shouldn’t be designing by feeling. I get all the time from the community that I’m some big developer. I know what my values are, and I’m about saving the environment and creating a vibrant downtown. I do things. These people are complaining, but they never do anything.”
Vicki Vega, vice president for small business development and innovation at the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, sees businesses coming back strong after the summer. “I’m a Sarasota native for 20 years,” says Vega. “It’s a boom town. When October comes hope springs eternal.” Vega is one of many councilors at the Small Business Development Center helping local business owners stay alive. “Just because you see a councilor doesn’t mean you’re in trouble,” she says. “It means you could be trying to build your business.”
Any business can contact the SBDC at 408-1412 to schedule a free counseling session. The first tip Vega gives entreprenuers: “Any business that doesn’t have a strong Internet component better get one soon. The ones that are going to be successful are the ones that capitalize on new technology.” Vega believes the current economic climate is the perfect incubator for new businesses. “Now’s the time if you’ve got a good idea and you’ve got time on your hands. We can make something happen.”
Good news — if you’ve still got money to invest, that is. But for those small business owners cleaning out their formerly bustling shops, and posting those bright yellow “For Lease” signs, Vega’s words probably don’t provide much comfort.