Main Street revival: Downtown Plant City carves out new path to the future

It’s the weekend in downtown Plant City, a time when many an urban core sleeps, waiting for the business week to bring the streets back to life with shoppers and office workers.

But on this Saturday as springtime arrives, the shops stay open late and the streets teem with young families pushing strollers, older couples holding hands and youngsters tugging on parents’ sleeves, wanting to explore the Union Station train depot. Music from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s fills the air, providing ambiance for row upon row of yesteryear’s cars, each with its hood up, open for inspection.

Bailey Bryant, 21, of Palm Harbor in Pinellas County, pauses among the muscle cars to check on her 2-year-old daughter, Raelynn, lounging in a stroller. Stretching ahead of her for at least four blocks are rows of classic conveyances -- cars, hotrods and pickup trucks -- from every decade before 1990, gleaming as though they just rolled out of their 20th century showrooms for the first time.

Bryant says the monthly Plant City Strawberry Classic Car Show is a big draw for her party of eight, which regularly treks from Pinellas County on the Gulf Coast to see such events in Plant City in Hillsborough County and other parts of Central Florida.

“This is the one we keep coming back to, though,” she says.  At some point, she says, the group will take a break from the car show, look around and find a place to eat.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, say downtown business leaders who are re-launching the Plant City Main Street revitalization program. Special events like the car show, the annual Railfest at downtown’s Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum and periodic “night-out” discount shopping dates are intended to get people downtown where they can see what Plant City’s historic commercial hub has to offer, including unique eateries and a variety of retailers offering antiques, collectibles and handcrafted novelties.

David Schultz, a downtown business owner for 14 years and past president of the Plant City Downtown Business and Merchants Association, recently joined with others to resurrect the Main Street program, a state and national blueprint for downtown revitalization. Plant City had a program in place through the Florida Division of Historical Resources more than 20 years ago, but it faded away.

Schultz, who heads the new Main Street design team, says the reincarnated version will be stronger. In the years since the original Main Street, the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce has moved downtown, joining City Hall and the recently formed Plant City Economic Development Corp. Schultz is counting on the partnership of all four to breathe new life not only into Main Street but into downtown itself.

Jumpstart from the past

The new Main Street board, assembled in January, inherits a far stronger business community than its predecessor. In 1986, when the first Plant City Main Street began, many downtown buildings were vacant, worn, even downright shabby. 

“A great feeling of doom and gloom was everywhere,” recalls Ed Verner, a landowner, developer and real estate manager whose family has had an office downtown since his grandfather ran the business.

Verner and another businessman with Plant City roots, the late David Hawthorne, are widely credited with sowing the seeds of rejuvenation in the mid-1990s. Much of Hawthorne’s effort was destroyed in a fire in 2005, but Verner credits him with launching what would become a series of downtown makeovers.

The biggest eyesore of the 1990s was the sprawling two-story Lee Building, a 1922 relic that occupies a prominent corner in clear view of Union Depot. City officials and business owners alike spent years wringing their hands over its fate. Large and dilapidated, it would be costly to restore and update, yet it had character and significance. Among other claims to fame, it had once housed the local Western Union office.

Verner was scouting downtown buildings on behalf of a potential investor when he first stepped into the aging structure.

“It was a big, monstrous building, but it was beautiful,” he says. “I fell in love with that building.”  

With a plan for marketing most of the structure for professional office space, Verner set about bringing the Lee up to modern standards, with climate control, an elevator, fire prevention sprinklers and new windows. He says skepticism mounted as he invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into remodeling, which took about 1 ½ years. “The day they believed was the day we put the awnings on,” he says, referring to the eye-catching green-and-white shades that mark the building today and cost around $7,000. “That always made me laugh. … I should have done that on Day Five.”

Blueprint for the future

Verner suggests the next steps for downtown should be more living space, perhaps in the underutilized upper floors of many of the buildings. To facilitate that, he says, the central district could use a store that offers groceries and convenience items so that downtown residents wouldn’t have to drive to outlying strip centers for basic needs.

He and Schultz say the city’s planned Midtown development on downtown’s south side is a welcome complement to the commercial core. In recent years, the city targeted about 14 acres, razing rundown buildings, retooling streets, landscaping several blocks and adding a fountain centerpiece, all in anticipation of a mixed-use district that will include residential options within walking distance of downtown. City leaders hope the investment will spur private development of up to 85 acres, and early this year agreed to pay $48,000 to a consultant to recruit and negotiate with developers.

In addition to that investment, the city has long offered downtown property owners matching grants for façade improvements that meet certain criteria. The combination of public and private investment through that program totals almost $1.9 million, according to city records.

Schultz says the reborn Main Street program will expand on the number and types of special events to draw people downtown. The board has developed a map with business listings that includes the 15-block nationally designated historic commercial district and additional blocks on all sides.

Other actions under consideration by Main Street or the city include:
  • Proposing a city ordinance that would allow retailers to display their wares on the sidewalks in an attractive way, similar to an existing ordinance that allows eateries to offer sidewalk dining.
  • Hiring a Main Street manager.
  • Working with CSX to establish a quiet zone that would reduce the warning blasts of horns as trains approach downtown intersections. A $165,000 matching grant from the Florida Department of Transportation for safety improvements related to the move has been approved. City leaders say it would encourage more people to live downtown.
  • Capitalizing on the popularity of the Bruton Memorial Library, which draws 20,000 visitors to downtown each month, and county government buildings, existing or planned, for the district’s eastern edge that promise scores of employees and visitors looking for nearby lunch spots each day.

City Manager Mike Herr met with downtown leaders in April and praised their business knowhow and the curb appeal of the district’s storefronts. The heart of Plant City remains important not only because of its economic significance but because it provides history and character to the community, Herr says.

Longtime observers like Verner agree.

“I definitely think in Plant City, the future looks bright in downtown,” he says. “A lot of small towns wish they had something like it. You can’t re-create it out of thin air.” 

Read more articles by Susan Green.

Susan Green is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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