ST. PETERSBURG — It's a Monday in June and despite the noontime heat and humidity, Central Avenue is bustling with pedestrians and the restaurants are packed.
Just a few blocks away, toward the waterfront and deeper into the heart of downtown, BayWalk sits mostly empty. The stores are cool and comfortable, but with few exceptions, they are desolate.
With few diners, some of the waiters of BayWalk's cluster of restaurants are outside smoking.
It's lunchtime on a weekday in a city amid an urban renaissance. The entertainment complex is supposed to be the city's centerpiece. Where are BayWalk's customers?
Store owners say it's all about foot traffic — which doesn't exist on weekdays.
"I don't think local folks are coming to BayWalk," said Burton Bullard of the Bullard Group, the developers who own a trio of BayWalk restaurants, including Grattzi, Ammazza Pizza Cafe and new Banbu. "We're trying to find our way and struggle and survive."
For restaurateurs, that means adapting. Managers at Banbu recently ditched the do-it-yourself hibachi-style kitchen in favor of a nightclub atmosphere. Before that, a management shakeup turned the neighboring Dan Marino's Town Tavern into Grille 121. More changes are rumored, including the departure of TooJay's Gourmet Deli. Company officials either could not be reached or declined to comment.
Earlier this year, the women's fashion boutique the Buzz closed and hasn't been replaced.
Those changes, whether tweaks or overhauls, coincide with the for-sale listing of the 150,000-square-foot retail complex announced in November 2007.
Lisa Brock, a spokeswoman for Sembler Co., which developed the $40-million downtown project in 2000, said, "We're always talking to potential buyers, but there is no deal."
With the complex on the block, business owners say they are uncertain about BayWalk's future.
Amy Bromley, owner of the furniture and lifestyle store Being, said news of the sale has stirred up conversations of who's staying and who's going. Being's lease is up in December, but Bromley said she doesn't plan on leaving.
"There's rumors flying everywhere, but they don't pan out," she said. "I'm definitely here. I wish I had some company."
Despite the uncertainties, event-filled weekends downtown and Tampa Bay Rays games bring customers and dollars, said Bruce Rabon, who owns Hurricane Pass and Metropolitan Outfitters, two BayWalk stores selling high-end men's fashions.
"When there's traffic at BayWalk, my stores do well," Rabon said. "It's a tremendously viable place. It's just going through growing pains."
Casey Cora can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or at email@example.com.