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Seizing The Day

Originally Published: March 27, 2005

A diverse mix of tenants is sought for the district to attract more tourists, such as Nancy and Dennis Carisse from Ottowa Canada.
TAMPA … You'll find tasty food and hot jazz at Brian Cornacchia's Big City Tavern in Ybor City, but you won't find lunch.

The Tampa restaurateur axed lunch service last year after he bought out his partners, becoming sole owner of the eatery on the second floor of the former Centro EspaÑol building on Seventh Avenue.

It made more sense to focus on dinner, which brings in more customers, and higher profits, Cornacchia said.

""It was a nice lunch business. There just wasn't enough of it to make it worthwhile,'' he said.

Cornacchia isn't the first business owner to struggle with Ybor City's split economy: a trickle of commercial activity during the day, followed by a torrent of visitors at night.

There's little doubt that Ybor City's bars and nightclubs play a significant economic role, not just for Seventh Avenue but for the Tampa Bay area. It is, after all, both a historic and entertainment district, which translates into jobs, investment and visitors.

These days, however, Ybor's nightlife-heavy reputation has become a bit of a public relations headache.

Last year, Club Bling, which is for teenagers, prompted complaints of youngsters roaming around Ybor City at all times of the night, and sparked calls for a teen curfew.

Earlier this month, county Commissioner Ronda Storms derided Ybor City as ""Y-bar City'' and ""a red light district'' before a commission vote on where a new sheriff's facility should go.

City officials and local business leaders say addressing this economic dichotomy is the key to Ybor City's future.

They say a better balance of tenants on Seventh Avenue and a growing residential community will help broaden Ybor City's economy, bringing daytime activities to an entertainment district that's already a proven nighttime hotspot. Mayor Pam Iorio has laid out a vision of Ybor City that includes more restaurants, boutiques and businesses to cater to mature customers.

A walk down Seventh Avenue, Ybor City's main street, illustrates the dominance of the nighttime economy.

Bars and nightclubs comprise one-third of all the street- level businesses on the eight- block stretch between Avenue Republica de Cuba and 22nd Street.

In comparison, retailers account for just a fourth of all the street-level tenants on Seventh Avenue. Restaurants, including some that are only open at night, make up another quarter. The remaining nonvacant ground-level spaces along Seventh Avenue are taken up by six offices, five tattoo and piercing parlors, two banks, two art galleries and the Italian Club, an historic building.

The preponderance of bars and nightclubs on Seventh Avenue poses a real estate problem for Ybor City, as the establishments occupy storefronts that might instead be used for restaurants and retailers that could be open during the day.

It also creates something of an image problem: As the nightclubs and bars are generally open only at night, visitors to Ybor City during the day find Seventh Avenue teeming with closed doors and darkened windows. This reinforces the area's nightlife-only image.

""Ybor needs to diversify,'' said Tom Keating, the newly hired president and chief executive officer of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce. ""It's too overfocused on its nighttime market segment.''

Doing nothing and preserving the status quo doesn't appear to be an option.

""I think it's going to get worse or get better,'' said Craig Sher, president and CEO of The Sembler Co. in St. Petersburg. ""I don't think it's going to stay the way it is.''

Sembler, a development company, is one of the three owners of Centro Ybor.

Dennis and Nancy Carisse, tourists from Ottawa, Canada, recently visited Ybor City during the day and said they were impressed by the area's historic buildings, but surprised at how little there was to explore.

""It's quiet for a large city,'' said Nancy Carisse, looking at vintage dresses and clothes in the window of La France at 1612 E. Seventh Ave.

Ybor City office workers say they're happy with their lunch options, but want more retail.

""It was very nice to work down here when there was more shopping,'' said Jackie Heron, who works for the federal government.

""It would be nice if there were more shopping,'' echoed Stacy Matios, a TECO Energy employee, on her way to lunch at The Green Iguana Bar & Grill at 1708 E. Seventh Ave.

Steps To Change
Ybor City's civic, city and business stewards are aware of the issues stemming from the nightclub- and bar-heavy tenant mix on Seventh Avenue. A new Ybor City Vision Plan, being prepared for the city and the Ybor City Development Corporation, calls the area's retail market weak and says the bars and nightclubs ""has displaced other uses that could provide more daytime street life and activity in the area.''

A draft of the plan was published earlier this month; the final version is expected soon. The Ybor City Development Corporation is a not-for-profit organization, established by the city, that works with city officials, businesses and entrepreneurs to encourage development and redevelopment in Ybor City.

Mark Huey, Tampa's Economic Development Administrator, says Ybor faces a classic chicken-and-egg problem. The area needs more daytime visitors to lure retailers, and more retailers to attract daytime visitors.

Fortunately, the city can take inexpensive steps to make Ybor more attractive to retailers and other investors until the number of daytime visitors catches up, Huey said. He pointed to a handful of suggestions in the draft of the vision plan:

* Economic incentives that improve the tenant mix on Seventh Avenue or improve visitors' experience, such as rent subsidies for desired retailers or financial support for valet parking. There's no plan in place yet for such incentives, so it's unknown how much money might be made available.

* Activate Seventh Avenue by encouraging nightclubs and bars to make their storefronts more appealing, either by installing displays in the windows, or by installing some retail space at the front of the business.

* Hire a professional who can take a centralized approach to leasing in the entertainment district, working with tenants and landlords with a big-picture goal of improving the diversity of businesses on Seventh Avenue and other streets.

* Promote Ybor City with a comprehensive, consistent marketing campaign. The Ybor City Development Corp. and the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce are earmarking $200,000 for advertising and promotions.

* Use the city's alcohol zoning laws to clamp down on the number and types of nightclubs and bars in Ybor City.

Sher, the Sembler CEO, said that a coordinated approach to Ybor City's bars and nightclubs, including a tougher stance on alcohol permits, will encourage more people to visit Ybor City during the day, and more businesses to open stores and restaurants to serve those visitors.

""We've got to correct the nighttime issue, and that will correct the daytime issue,'' he said. ""People are not going to invest lots of money in retail for a daytime-only crowd, because there's not enough tourists and residents yet to support retail during the day.''

Nightlife Not Unwanted
Refining the tenant mix on Seventh Avenue doesn't mean chasing off nightclubs.

Huey applauds the investment club owners have made in Ybor City, and he thinks clubs have an important role in the entertainment district's future.

""They have been critical to helping revitalize Seventh Avenue,'' he said.

In fact, Ybor City's nightlife plays an important role in the effort to bring tourists and conventions to Tampa.

""I can certainly tell you that there is not a marketing initiative or activity that doesn't include Ybor,'' said Karen Brand, vice president of marketing for the Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau. ""It is such an integral part of how we market and sell the greater Tampa Bay area.''

The bureau touts Ybor City as an historic district and an entertainment district to tourists, convention attendees and meeting planners, she said.

Otis White, president of Civic Strategies Inc., said an entertainment district like Ybor City helps cities attract convention business and convince conventioneers to stay an extra night.

""Any time you do that, you have greatly boosted the local economy,'' he said.

Other cities race to build entertainment districts from scratch, complete with faux historical architecture, White said.

""Other places are building areas to look like Ybor City, and you've already got it,'' he said. ""It's real, it's got real history, it's got real, old architecture.''

Nightclub owners say they have a vested interest in seeing Ybor City thrive at all hours.

""We believe in Ybor City, and we believe we can have a positive impact on Ybor City,'' said Keith Zlomsowitch, general manager and a partner of Lotus Ultra Lounge at 1507 E. Seventh Ave.

Lotus opened in November with a dance club downstairs and a lounge upstairs.

Zlomsowitch said he and his partners invested about $1 million renovating the former W.T. Grant building.

The club aims to balance some of the negative perceptions of Ybor City by opening early to host charity events.

""We want to show people that Ybor City is safe, it is entertaining, and there are alternative venues,'' he said.

Growth Expectations
The residential renaissance of Ybor City is another keystone for the diversification of Ybor City's economy, said Vince Pardo, manager of the Ybor City Development Corporation.

The Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission expects Ybor City's population to double during the next 25 years, from 2,032 residents in 2000 to 4,300 in 2025.

As the population of Ybor City grows, so will the need for retailers, such as drugstores, grocery stores and dry cleaners, Pardo said.

Brenda Thrower, an economic development specialist with the Ybor City Development Corp., said 210 new housing units are under construction or on the drawing board. What's happening in Ybor City is part of a trend that's occurring elsewhere in the United States, as people rediscover the lure of living in an urban environment, she said.

""We want a livable neighborhood,'' she said.

Zlomsowitch, the general manger of Lotus, said he welcomes more residents.

""It helps us, and we embrace it.'' he said. ""Any development down here is positive, with people investing for the long term.''

Ybor City's future sounds a lot like its past.

Bob Kerstein, a University of Tampa government professor who studies Tampa history, said Tampa used economic incentives to lure cigar maker Vicente Martinez Ybor to the area in the 1880s. The area thrived as a community in which people worked, lived and played, with clubs such as the Italian Union and Centro EspaÑol serving as social and entertainment centers.

In the 1950s, city planners began describing Ybor City as a neighborhood in decline. A wave of urban renewal in the 1960s displaced families and resulted in homes being torn down. Kerstein said people began referring to Ybor City as Tampa's entertainment center as early as the 1960s.

Diversity Is Key
Pardo said diversifying Ybor City's economy, both through residential development and by strengthening the tenant mix on Seventh Avenue, will help businesses there become more resilient.

Instead of depending on the late-night audience, businesses could also rely on other groups of customers: the ""cafe con leche'' crowd in the morning, business folks and tourists at lunch, and Tampa office workers at happy hour, he said.

Pardo said bar, nightclub and restaurant receipts sank 40 percent after the Sept. 11 attacks. He also said that new hot spots, such as International Plaza's Bay Street and Channelside, both in Tampa, and BayWalk in downtown St. Petersburg, have siphoned happy hour business from Ybor City.

""It shows you how fragile the economy is,'' he said.

Other trends may help diversify the area's economy. A growing number of businesses are seeking office space in Ybor and major employer Kforce recently moved into a new corporate campus.

The Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission estimates 16,053 people will work in Ybor City by 2005, not including self- employed professionals. In 2000, 8,779 people worked in Ybor, according to the commission.

Back at Big City Tavern, Cornacchia said he's looking forward to more diversity on Seventh Avenue and hopes the entertainment district can shed its bar- and nightclub- heavy reputation.

For now, he thinks the city needs to crack down on the businesses that flout the rules.

""If you have a handful of people that are allowed to create this stigma and keep it alive, it's just so unfair for the greater community,'' he said. ""We all have to get along down here. We all have to make a living.''

Reporter Dave Simanoff can be reached at (813) 259-7762.



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