Downtown welcomes new businesses as it overcomes the economic effects of the pandemic
BY ANTHONY WESTBURY
“Remarkably resilient” might be a good way of describing both the attitudes and business prospects of downtown retailers and restaurateurs who have bounced back from the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rather than seeing a rash of empty storefronts and shuttered businesses, as we frequently read about in the national media, downtown Fort Pierce boasts a surprisingly robust and vibrant local economy. In recent months, a wave of new businesses has sprung up on Second Street, Avenue A and Orange Avenue, complementing some old favorites.
There are a sprinkling of new art galleries, gift and specialty stores, eateries and watering holes to round out downtown shopping. There’s even a place to wet your whistle while throwing axes at targets, an intriguing combination [Hard Axe Lounge, 200 N. Second St.].
And the next couple of years promise more of a fundamental economic boost to the area. By 2022, the development of the Port of Fort Pierce as a mega-yacht refit facility and the building of the mixed-use Kings Landing development on Indian River Drive should drive more out-of-town customers to the city.
Beryl Muise, owner of Notions and Potions at 116 N. Second St., is an established downtown business owner and a board member of the Downtown Business Alliance, which seeks to strengthen local small businesses through promotional events including Shop Small Saturday, held over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
LOOKING FORWARD TO 2021
Muise reported that 2020 had been rough because of the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, but she sees a lot of hope for 2021.
“The holiday season has been amazing,” she said. “Our sales have doubled over this time last year. I think that’s partly due to national coverage of shopping small. I think people were more aware of Shop Small Saturday.
“There are several new small businesses downtown and all are doing well, as far as I know,” Muise said. “We hold Sip and Shop events on Thursday evenings between 5 and 8 p.m., and the city and Main Street Fort Pierce have funded jazz musicians. That helped bring people downtown.
“We did have a couple of closures — a coffee shop and a monogramming business — but I don’t believe they closed because of COVID,” she said.
“I hope people will continue supporting local businesses in 2021. In one afternoon, I had 15 new customers and all of them were adamant about doing all of their Christmas shopping locally.
“I think the Bistro and Sailfish Brewing Company were the main catalysts to bringing downtown to life. The breweries, [Muise also mentioned Pierced Ciderworks at 411 N. Second St.] have definitely helped bring younger people here.”
SMALL BUSINESSES DID WELL
Doris Tillman, manager of Main Street Fort Pierce, echoed Muise’s thoughts.
“Business is certainly not as strong as in prior years, but we do have a bunch of new businesses, and even though the number attending Shop Small Saturday was down from 2019, businesses did very well in sales. That’s good to see.
“Instead of spending money on the [canceled] Christmas parade, Main Street brought jazz musicians to regular downtown events, including Santa on Saturdays and the Grinch on Thursdays and Fridays. I think the music helped slow people down and they started to shop.
“We had a lot of fun with the police department,” Tillman continued. “They sent a [spoof] BOLO [Be On the Lookout] out for the Grinch who was trying to unplug the downtown Christmas tree lights. Chief Hobley-Burney got into the spirit by arresting him and videoing it all.
“One of the advantages of living in a small community and being in Florida is that we’re not afraid of going outside, as in New York. You have to adapt to changing circumstances. Our Reverse Raffle fundraiser this year was virtual. Was it as exciting? No, but the proceeds will keep us going for a few months. We also held a virtual Coffee with the Mayor event.
“The community is all about supporting each other. I feel very optimistic about downtown. We’re working with the Small Business Center at Indian River State College to offer grants to new businesses.”
Tillman is looking forward to the upcoming residential and commercial Kings Landing development on the former H.D. King power plant site on Indian River Drive. The project will include an upscale 140-room hotel, which should benefit the Sunrise Theatre and other festivals, Tillman believes.
HOTEL PLANS UPGRADED
Kings Landing developer Dale Matteson also is bullish on Fort Pierce, despite the pandemic having delayed progress on his project by between six and eight months.
“COVID decimated the hotel and travel industries, but residential and retail sales have gone through the roof,” Matteson noted.
Demand for proposed townhomes and condominiums has been brisk, he said, reporting that only three townhomes remain for sale and that almost 40 of the 60 condos on offer have prepaid deposits on them.
The pandemic may also have had a silver lining for the hotel planned for Kings Landing, Matteson said.
“We’ve been talking with several serious [hotel] operators and have settled on one,” details of which he declined to reveal until a formal agreement has been signed.
“Prior operators we talked with were budgeting about $20 million to build what’s known as deluxe service-style hotels, such as Fairfield Inns,” he explained. “But now we have an operator with a much bigger vision and a $45 million budget.”
Matteson announced in early January that he has signed a letter of intent with Tampa-based Mainsail Hotels to bring an upscale boutique/resort-style hotel [as opposed to a business hotel] to the new development.
Mainsail specializes in offering hotels customized to reflect the flavor of local markets, Matteson said. The small chain operates hotels in Tampa, Fort Myers and the U.S. Virgin Islands, among other locations.
“It will be a full-service facility with 140 rooms and it looks like a rich guy built a hotel — like they used to build them with a bank, stores in the lobby, restaurants and bars and meeting rooms on the premises. It should create the energy we were looking for and should be a better fit next to $1 million condos,” Matteson said.
As far as retail opportunities in Kings Landing, the pandemic has also forced developers to refine their thoughts, Matteson added. There will be less emphasis, he believes, on new retail units, while bars and restaurants will become more important. Matteson is especially pleased that two established local restaurant operators — Cobb’s Landing and 12A Buoy — plan to open new operations at Kings Landing while retaining their existing downtown locations.
Matteson is looking forward to the business that Derecktor of Fort Pierce’s mega-yacht facility at the port should generate.
“I think Fort Pierce may finally be blossoming into the jewel of the Atlantic Coast,” he said. “It feels to me that the latest boom is more substantial than before. I feel very good about Fort Pierce’s future.”
GALLERY IN NEW LOCATION
Someone else who feels the same way is Steve Fogle, owner of the new Whirled Inc. gallery at 129 N. Second St.
Fogle operated a tiny 250-square-foot gallery on Avenue A for several years before moving into larger premises vacated by a monogramming shop that closed.
“I doubled down, saw an opportunity and took a shot,” Fogle said. “So far, everything’s been really good. I’m doing well, paying the bills.”
Fogle sold his house to make sure he had enough backup capital. He was surprised when his Realtor told him she had a waiting list of potential clients for the new space. A lot of people were ready to jump on the opportunity, he recalled.
Whirled Inc. is a gallery that sells wine, vintage and eclectic items and features the work of 17 artists, some of whom used to exhibit work at the closed Art Connection on U.S. 1. Fogle said his gallery is intended to appeal to both men and women.
“I believe it’s the coolest store downtown,” he said. “I’ve spent my entire life working for frame shops and galleries, so it’s all the best quality. I wanted a gallery for men. Over the years, I’ve seen men sitting out in the car while their wives shopped. So, I made the place rustic, out of wood crates and so on. Men seem to have the idea they can’t enjoy art. I say if you can’t find a gift in here, you ain’t shopping!”
Fogle plans monthly art shows and wine-tasting events in the new year.
“Sailfish [Brewing Company] gave downtown a flagship business and they have really made a difference.” Fogle said. “They work really hard at being the leaders. I’m grateful having them there, with their customers drinking right across from my store. You can’t buy advertising like that!”
HEMP COLLECTIVE OPENS
Perhaps the most unusual new downtown store is the Florida Hemp Collective at 203 N. Second St. Owners Tim and Abbigail Gunther have had the store since July.
Tim Gunther said the couple have worked in the cannabis and hemp industry for many years assisting hemp growers and entrepreneurs comply with state and local regulations all over the country. They decided to showcase the products of their clients in the new store.
Tim Gunther said they have had an overwhelmingly positive response from city officials, the police department and residents. Many people are curious about their products, unfamiliar with the difference between hemp and cannabis, he said.
“Hemp, by law, cannot contain more than 0.03 percent THC, which gives marijuana its high,” he explained.
The collective sells smokable hemp flowers [to reduce anxiety and aid sleep] and a wide variety of creams, tinctures, oils, salves, capsules and gummies intended to ease pain and other ailments completely legally. They also stock clothing made out of hemp.
“We have customers up to the age of 90,” Tim Gunther said. “We supply education about hemp; we don’t give medical advice, but rely on referrals from existing customers.”
With the success of these new additions to downtown and that of existing established businesses, too, Fort Pierce seems to have a bright future indeed. Perhaps all this positivity will blow away the COVID blues.