Reimagining downtown

Downtown Bradenton inspires diverse dreams, eagerness for incentives

chawes@bradenton.comMay 2, 2011 

BRADENTON -- How quickly does Jesse James, owner of Bradenton’s oldest bar, wish the Downtown Development Authority would finish its retail incentives package?

“Yesterday,” said James, owner of the Tip Top Tavern. “Once they put that package together, we’ll be the first in line to apply for it.”

James is among at least a half-dozen business owners who have big plans for their businesses after seeing the downtown change for the better in recent years. Some are looking to expand or relocate all the way from Sarasota. Others are already downtown and want to take their visions a little farther.

Almost all are, like James, interested in hearing more about retail incentives from the DDA as soon as possible.

“I think downtown Bradenton is one of the prettiest downtowns in Florida,” said Nathan Zammit, owner and manager of the Sarasota Cupcake Co. “It reminds me a lot of New Orleans, with all of the wrought-iron stuff and the columns. I love its historic-looking brick buildings. It’s beautiful.”

But because he’s in the midst of opening his second store on St. Armands Circle, Zammit can’t even fathom the cost or time involved in a downtown Bradenton store for at least nine months.

“I’m sure the incentives would help because, of course, money is an issue,” Zammit said. “If there were some incentives to get me to move quicker, I’d be more apt to get somebody to do my job here so I could focus on expanding there.”

The DDA has historically only provided grants to businesses for the purpose of renovating their exteriors -- financial help that is welcome and needed by some of Bradenton’s most recent business additions.

“I’d love to put in an old-fashioned mahogany door,” said Thomas Stynes, owner of McCabe’s Irish Pub, which just moved to 302 Old Main St. a few weeks ago. “We’re not a corporate entity, so my establishment is not 100 percent finished. There are some things I’d love to do that would make my storefront more in keeping with the old building where we’re located.”

Then the DDA approved $250,000 in February for the upscale Ezra Cafe, to address more nuts-and-bolts needs like rent and interior construction at the downtown spot to which it wanted to relocate. Ezra backed out of the deal in response to community criticism, but the episode inspired other businesses to explore the possibility of getting financial support from the DDA.

James, for instance, is eager to apply for DDA retail incentive money to improve his 65-year-old bar, which has had a rough time with the Manatee Avenue construction that will continue until the end of this year.

James said the construction has made it impossible for delivery trucks to enter his parking lot and difficult for the average passerby to even find his parking lot.

He also would like to transform the property next door -- a car wash that shut down within months of the construction -- into a massive burger joint.

“We all know that in the next year or two, downtown Bradenton is going to be the place to be,” James said. “But guess what? They’re not coming down here to eat at five-star restaurants. They want to eat sausages and burgers, and hot dogs, and drink some beer.”

“Willow,” manager of the Om Gaia holistic spiritual shop on Old Main Street, had inquired with the city about some financial help for her vision: an alternative reading room. Without some subsidy from the DDA, she’ll have to wait for the expansion until she can raise the money through donations from her customers and mailing list.

Werner Beck, owner of Beck’s Bistro on Old Main Street, had wanted to start a small grocery store in a storefront behind his bistro in the Jennings Arcade and had sought about $30,000 in DDA support for the idea. But another business ended up leasing the space Beck had in mind, causing him to abandon the idea for now.

Cork Miller, owner of Cork’s Cigar Bar, inquired about possible DDA support for his business’s relocation about six months ago. Miller, who also is a DDA board member, was told the same thing that businesses are hearing now: a program to provide retail incentives isn’t ready.

“I’ve been in the same position as them,” said Miller, who is moving forward anyway with his planned move across the street, where he can obtain a longer lease. Miller also said he’ll recuse himself from the DDA’s consideration of his incentive application when it happens.

The DDA has told all inquiring businesses that no such grants will be considered until it can come up with criteria on which to judge retail applicants. Those criteria will be formed after the DDA hires a new executive director, which is expected to happen within the next several months.

Even established businesses that haven’t gone to the DDA for incentive money are looking forward to its completion of those retail incentive guidelines.

“Downtown just needs a little more support,” said Maria Favasuli, owner of Fav’s Italian Cuisine on Old Main Street “Give people the opportunity to get started so they can see if the economy will support them.”

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