TARPON SPRINGS — A recent rush has brought several new businesses into the city, as well as revitalized some dormant community spots. It's the payoff from a more focused effort to attract and retain businesses.
"We're being more aggressive," said Karen Lemmons, the city's economic development manager. "I think we're just being more vocal in who we are as a city and what we have to offer."
Since Lemmons joined the city at the beginning of this year, she has tracked more than three dozen new projects in Tarpon Springs. That's new businesses that have opened, ones that are still in the works or major renovations. In addition to that, she said she has fielded a flurry of inquiries on vacant properties.
Compare that to previous years: The city tallied seven ribbon-cuttings and grand openings in 2010, and eight in 2011.
Also significant is that the new ventures are popping up throughout the city and spanning a diverse range of industries.
Family restaurants have cropped up near a craft brewery, a tavern and a bar. Big chains — Wal-Mart and Family Dollar — have moved in, but so too have boutiques. Renovations will reopen a bed-and-breakfast, and redevelopment will make room for an assisted living facility.
"We're a really well-rounded city," said Sue Thomas, Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce executive director. "So it just adds to what we already have."
Events and festivals nearly every weekend help attract new businesses. They also represent increasing collaboration between downtown merchants, Sponge Docks merchants, the chamber and the city.
For future development, the city has targeted several areas for growth. It has already planned to spruce up the Sponge Docks and improved Lemon Street for the rebirth of a historic warehouse district.
Even the corridor along Pinellas Avenue that connects the historic downtown and the Sponge Docks has been filled in with new businesses.
That includes retailer Tampa Bay Salvage. Owner Josh White had been searching for a place to carve his own niche, somewhere different from his family's salvage business back in New Jersey and distinct from traditional antique stores. The old sponge warehouse on Pinellas Avenue seemed like a divine opportunity.
"I love the history," he said. "I love this old building."
The property owner felt protective of the warehouse and its place in his family's history. White could respect that.
He fixed up the building to sell architectural salvage — unusual home fixings, such as doors, windows and mantles, taken from old buildings and fixed up. "We take the stuff that's all nailed down," White explained.
Other businesses have sprung up around him, including the Black Grouper restaurant across the street.
After being on cable television shows like Dirty Jobs and Operation Salvage while working with his family's business, White likes the local feel of Tarpon Springs: the neighborly crowd and the quiet grassroots growth.
"I kind of want to keep it like a best-kept secret," he said.
The city's economic strategy will continue to communicate with businesses such as White's to keep tabs on their needs. Retaining businesses complements recruiting them. The chamber helps in forming business plans, marketing and finding money to keep ventures viable. The city looks for incentives, like streamlining permitting processes or offering grants for building improvements.
On U.S. 19, new managers of an abandoned driving range recently earned an alcoholic beverages permit from the city. At the DeRanged driving range and pub, it isn't all about golf.
The trio of owners brainstormed a Splitsville-type concept, where a pub enhances the experience at the driving range and batting cages.
The business opened earlier this week, said co-owner Rusty Harwood.
I'm so happy you guys are back open, customers have told him. I used to come here all the time. I literally live right around the corner.
"A lot of people missed it," he said.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or [email protected]