ST. PETERSBURG — Claire Pearce sat in the dark at the movie theater at BayWalk wondering if the other downtown business owners felt the same desperation.
On her highest-grossing day last week, Pearce's frozen yogurt shop, the Full Monty, brought in only $79.
"We had so many regulars when BayWalk was thriving," she said. "But now, even the panhandlers are gone because there are so few people downtown."
Pearce, whose business is a stone's throw from the once prosperous entertainment complex, was among 60 retailers who attended a city-sponsored "webinar" last week at BayWalk Muvico titled "Tips and Tactics to Increase Customer Traffic Today."
The 90-minute presentation, the first in a series of three, was being broadcast from the studio of a Colorado-based retail guru and aimed at entrepreneurs like Pearce, who are searching for new marketing strategies in order to survive.
The irony of looking for hope at BayWalk didn't escape Pearce, 51.
"Isn't this a little bit like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted?" she wondered.
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Despite a pledge from BayWalk's owners to invest $6 million in the failing complex, business owners like Pearce worry they won't be able to hang on until the expected renaissance occurs.
Another business — Johnny Rockets — closed in September, plunging the occupancy rate below 30 percent and further diminishing foot traffic to surrounding retailers.
City officials say the upcoming holiday season could make or break many of the remaining businesses.
"We all know the fourth quarter is a live-or-die moment," said Kimberly Bailey, coordinator of economic development for the city. "That's why we decided to ramp up our efforts right before Halloween."
Besides stemming the tide of shuttered storefronts, Bailey said, the city hopes to teach businesses that low-cost techniques like Facebook and MySpace can impact their bottom line. All it takes is a slightly different approach, Bailey said. The city paid $3,000 for the webinars.
Tom Sexauer, president of the Downtown Business Association, said his organization decided to partner with the city in presenting the webinars rather than staging additional promotions.
"If you look at the 600 block of Central, it's downright embarrassing," Sexauer said. "Right now, we would prefer to invest in education."
While opinion is divided on what led to BayWalk's woes — some blame protesters and rowdy teens while others say the downward spiral is just a symptom of a sagging economy — city officials say there's no doubt that the decline in occupancy has caused problems for other downtown businesses.
"Downtown is an interrelated, living, breathing organization," said Dave Goodwin, the city's director of economic development. "You need that big draw to bring people in."
While the city is focused on BayWalk, its efforts are not restricted to downtown businesses, Goodwin said, citing business owners citywide who took part in last week's webinar.
Among them was Dave Farnsworth, who owns a UPS store in the Northeast Shopping Center at Fourth Street and 38th Avenue N. Farnsworth, 68, said his sales have dropped off about 25 percent this year. He's spent the last six months brainstorming ways to expand his customer base by offering additional services.
"About 9,000 people come into our store every month," he said. "I'm trying to increase the average sale by showing them we can do something they might not have thought we could do here."
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Closer to the city's center, Nancy Wehrman is now working hard to make her Tranquillity Wellness Spa a "destination" business.
Sales grew through 2006, she said, but began falling in the summer of 2008. Wehrman says she's been "feeling the pinch" since BayWalk's decline.
"With fewer stores open, there's less reason for people to come downtown," said Wehrman, 47.
Gil Bilkas, manager of the Optic Shop two doors down, said he expected to be surrounded by high-end shops when he opened his store in 2000, the same year BayWalk opened.
"Now, I wouldn't care if somebody opened a shoe shine shop," said Bilkas, 52. "As long as it brought people downtown, that would be good."
He's still hopeful that BayWalk's renaissance will spark a revival in his block.
Meanwhile, Pearce, who owns the frozen yogurt shop, says she plans to hold on as long as she can — although she and her partner, Ian Fell, have cut costs to the bone by dismissing their employees and putting in 70-hour weeks.
They haven't taken a salary in the five years they've owned the business.
"We still feel downtown St. Petersburg could be so great," Pearce said. "But we just feel so disappointed with the way things have turned out."
Donna Winchester can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8413.