Downtown merchants' outlook bright despite pandemic challenges
BY ANTHONY WESTBURY
In a year in which the region has been battered by not one but three variants of the coronavirus, it is comforting to hear about the resilience of local merchants in the face of challenges to their livelihoods.
In fact, many downtown Fort Pierce business owners remain profitable and are looking forward to better times ahead.
Doris Tillman, executive director of Main Street Fort Pierce, is more confident downtown can bounce back from adversity than ever before.
She credits that to a new generation of entrepreneurs who she says are more ambitious and motivated to try new ideas than perhaps their forebears ever were.
Tillman pointed to several new businesses downtown that opened in the past 12 months, including women's clothing boutique Honey and Co. and the popular Cuban restaurant, Havana George Café, both in the Galleria complex at 100 S. Second St. Tillman noted that very few businesses downtown have failed in the past year.
"I think downtown is working well together," Tillman said. "After 30 years downtown, I'm so pleased to see so many people involved in being here and boosting their businesses. I'm also so impressed with the Downtown Business Alliance. They are so hardworking and positive. I think downtown's future looks very bright."
Someone who agrees wholeheartedly with Tillman is an active DBA member and owner of the vintage and coastal gift store Chic & Shore Things at 205 N. Second St. Becky Demanuel has been in business there for eight years.
"It's been a tough year for small businesses in general," she admitted, "but things have picked up dramatically since November and I'm hoping that continues."
Demanuel and Tillman are particularly looking forward to the start of construction of the $150 million mixed-use King's Landing project, on the site of the former city power plant at the north side of downtown.
The project received unanimous approval at its first reading before the city commission on Jan. 18. Final approval will be decided at a Monday, Feb. 7, Fort Pierce City Commission meeting, which is open to the public.
Demanuel believes most downtown merchants are encouraged by the prospect of more commercial and retail activity at King's Landing, rather than being scared of the competition.
The new development will encompass thousands of square feet of restaurant and retail space and will include a 140-room upscale boutique hotel as its centerpiece. The development will also bring more than 100 new permanent residents to downtown, something city planners have long insisted is vital to the area's economic and social vitality.
"King's Landing will bring a lot of new people to the city," Demanuel said. "This is the best plan we've seen [on that site] in a decade. I believe the developer [Dale Matteson of Audubon Development] will do his best for Fort Pierce. He's spent a lot of money giving the city what it originally asked for. And the hotel - a top-notch one - won't come if the number of rooms has to be reduced [because of recent resident concerns about the overall height of some of the buildings].
"It's a balancing act. The city desperately needs the economic push" King's Landing will provide, she said.
The Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County estimates the new development will have an economic impact of more than $20 million a year and provide hundreds of new jobs.
"I can't be too over-confident," developer Matteson said before the meeting, "but I hope after all the scrubbing the development has gone through, I hope it passes muster. Otherwise, denying the project could give Fort Pierce a bad name [in development circles]."
Matteson expects to break ground for the hotel by the end of the first quarter of this year.
He confirmed that several existing restaurants, including 12A Buoy, Pickled, Pierced Ciderworks and Cobb's Landing, have all committed to taking new space in King's Landing. This is in addition to their current premises, Matteson pointed out. Some will be very different from their original locations. Cobb's Landing, for instance, is talking about building a tapas bar and surf shop. Karen DeVries, who purchased longtime downtown business Chaney's House of Flowers in April, also is enthusiastic about King's Landing. She has revamped her florist shop with more space for gifts and her own artwork and made a bigger display area for plants and cut flowers.
DeVries noted she is only the eighth owner of the shop, which has been in business for 75 years. Business is good, she said.
"Everyone loves flowers," she said. "It's a very positive business and so uplifting for me."
DeVries insists on the exterior of her building staying spotless. She has planted flowers, cleared away garbage and regularly power washes the building. She's hoping to set a good example for other merchants downtown.
On Orange Avenue west of downtown, Stan and Jean Synkoski have spent four years and at least $500,000 on meticulously restoring the old Post Office building into the stylish Art Deco 500 Orange event venue.
The space, which can accommodate 250 guests and is available for weddings, anniversaries, fundraisers and corporate events, is housed in a 1935 building built by the Works Progress Administration at the height of the Great Depression.
In 1975, part of the building was converted for use as a federal courthouse. The Synkoskis have retained many features of that period, including the tiny holding cell for prisoners once housed in the federal marshal's office on the premises. The cell forms part of a groom's room upstairs. Brides can get changed in the old jury room.
The Synkoskis have booked more than 20 events since opening. Most recently, the building was used for the St. Lucie Cultural Alliance's first Music Series event, Marvelous, the Music of Marvin Gaye, in January. A series of musical events is planned by the alliance in coming months. Main Street Fort Pierce plans to hold its popular Reverse Raffle at the venue this month.
Aside from providing meeting, event and performing space in the city, 500 Orange could help spur the rehabilitation of the Peacock Arts District along Orange Avenue by creating a destination point for the area.
Steve Fogle, of Whirled Inc at 129 N. Second St., opened his gift, wine and art gallery one year before COVID-19 struck.
"I've been fighting it ever since," he noted ruefully. "It's been a battle to get customers inside the store."
Fogle is concerned about the omicron variant of the virus.
"If customers stop going out, we might have no choice but to close," Fogle said. "We did have a great Christmas and, so far, a good season. We've had a lot of support from locals and out-of-town visitors alike. So, I have my fingers crossed."
Several other downtown merchants used the same phrase to describe their hopes for the future. There are a lot of fingers being crossed on Second Street and beyond.
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