In recent years, Clearwater’s Cleveland Street has struggled to retain businesses and draw foot traffic following a redesign of streets and sidewalks to make them more pedestrian friendly.
Several small businesses
have arrived and a few have left because they haven’t succeeded in drawing enough customers. Even visitors to the city tend to bypass downtown to head directly to the beach.
So what’s a small city to do to attract people back to downtown as a cool place to be?
Thanks to the efforts of a group of local business owners, the Cleveland Street Business Alliance
, the Cleveland Street District
is poised for a resurgence.
The city’s downtown staff points the recession of nearly a decade ago for Cleveland Street's decline and now significant opportunity to rebound.
“It really undid the efforts of a lot of the smaller businesses,” says Anne Fogarty France, Administrator of the Downtown Development Board
Business owners, though, tend to blame the redirection of beach traffic from Cleveland to Court Street for the slump.
“It was a ghost town,” when Lina Teixera, a wearable art designer and member of the alliance, opened Studio 617
two-and-a-half years ago, she says. “It was desolate. There weren’t even vehicles passing by because of construction and diverted traffic.”
No matter the reason, both sides agree that it’s time to work together to revive the downtown thoroughfare.
Teamwork makes a difference
Around 30 business owners came together two years ago to form the CSBA. The group’s first project was to create 3-D maps of downtown Clearwater that featured local businesses, says Tony Starova, the group’s president and owner of Tony’s Pizzeria
“It was such a cool idea,” he adds. “That’s how it got started. It grew from there.”
In many ways, Starova -- “aka the Mayor of Cleveland Street” -- is the heart of this endeavor, says Seth Taylor, the city’s new director of the Community Redevelopment Agency
. “He’s a very hardworking entrepreneurial business owner who has taken the lead in working with these local businesses.”
Under Starova’s leadership, the group’s members collectively shifted their advertising focus to the tourists on Clearwater Beach who are actively looking to spend money while they’re visiting.
Teixera, who is originally from Canada, says it’s just a matter of letting the tourists know that Cleveland Street boasts a variety of restaurants, bars and small businesses. Canadians flock to Clearwater Beach for vacation, Teixera adds, and often, because of social media, she finds herself reconnecting with old friends from home who happen to be in town.
“They call me up and ask, ‘Lina, I’m in Clearwater. Where are you?’” she says. “Then the next thing they say is, ‘I had no idea this place existed.’ It’s always the same message. And these are not people who come here just once. These are people who come here regularly and have condominiums on the beach.”
It didn’t take long for the group to begin organizing large-scale events to attract residents and visitors to downtown Clearwater.
“These are merchants who saw the potential for downtown to be a great destination,” Taylor says. “So by organizing and pooling their resources, they’ve been able to create some really fun events that draw a crowd to Clearwater.”
Events attract people downtown
The group’s two major events, essentially block parties, are Downtown Funk and a Taste of Downtown Clearwater.
Downtown Funk is held the last Friday of October and includes a screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the Capitol Theatre, a costumed bar crawl, a pumpkin carving contest for the kids, contests, horror makeup demonstrations and games. Each year it will be held within a different block of Cleveland Street.
“It gives each part of downtown an opportunity to prosper,” Taylor says.
A Taste of Downtown Clearwater
will take place Saturday, Nov. 26, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For $20, attendees can sample food from a variety of downtown restaurants.
Because of the success of these events, the group has decided to host several events a month going forward, from smaller block parties and happy hours to piggybacking on larger events taking place in the city.
During last month’s Clearwater Jazz Holiday at Coachman Park, the Business Alliance hosted a series of parties featuring jazz music downtown to celebrate the festival and to draw its attendees to local businesses.
“We just want people to experience all that downtown has to offer,” Starova says.
France says businesses have created individual initiatives, as well. For instance, Café Milano
began hosting singles nights on Tuesdays in recent months. Last month, Studio 617 hosted the Cleveland Street Project, a photography exhibit by the Tampa Bay Society of Photographic Artists
featuring interpretations of Cleveland Street.
“People are trying to think of new ways to attract new customers,” France says. “We’re definitely seeing a buzz about different businesses.”
Starova says so many individual forces are working downtown that it’s “a perfect storm” for change on Cleveland Street.
The tech industry is booming, he says, and those businesses usually attract 20- and 30-somethings. “They all want something to do,” he says.
There are new ways to get to the beach, too, he adds. A ferry service between downtown and Clearwater Beach began operating last year.
“It’s going very well and we’re seeing more people coming downtown because of that,” Starova says.
New apartments coming soon
Downtown typically hasn’t had a residential base, Taylor says, but that’s about to change in early 2017 with the opening of The Nolen
apartment complex adjacent to Prospect Lake Park. The development will bring 257 units to the area, he says, which is key to urban redevelopment.
“All of those people are going to want things they can walk to,” Taylor adds.
The city is doing its part, as well. Not only does the CRA guide and support these business owners, but the city plans to revamp Cleveland Street’s Station Square Park by giving it “the Bryant Park treatment,” Taylor says. They’ll add approximately 100 bistro-style tables and chairs to the park in hopes that nearby workers and downtown visitors will spend time there. It will also serve as a venue for events, he says, from those hosted by local businesses to creative performances.
“We plan to make this a great public gathering space,” he says. “It’s in the heart of the district.”
It’s a good time to be downtown, he adds.
“There are a lot of exciting things happening here at once,” he says. “There’s a lot of momentum right now … All of the downtown leaders and stakeholders recognize the potential for downtown Clearwater to be a great place to be, a wonderful place to work and a great place to explore. We need to all work together to capitalize on that.”