OLDSMAR — A few weeks ago, carhops on roller skates served chili cheese coneys, tater tots and cherry limeades to customers in idle cars.
Drive past the Sonic on Tampa Road today and this is what you'll see: the marquee of the popular drive-in missing, windows boarded up with plywood, wires dangling from parking spaces where people placed their orders.
Across Oldsmar, businesses are leaving.
"I can't come up with an adjective like dire," said Jerry Custin, the president of the Upper Tampa Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce, "but certainly, you see more businesses closing than in prior years."
The problem in Oldsmar is not any more grim than in any other American city. But leaders think it is severe enough and are prepared to fork over more cash than ever on business retention.
The city does not know how much it will end up shelling out next year, but Mayor Jim Ronecker said something has to be done to stop the flight of businesses from the area.
"Next year, we might have to spend more money on economic development than we ever had before just to not only retain businesses but to look for new businesses to come in," he said.
By the end of October, the last month for which there was available data, seven businesses had terminated their licenses with Oldsmar, city spokeswoman Holly LiBaire said.
Chamber and city officials don't need a report to tell them that. They see it.
"If you drive around the city lately," Ronecker said, "there are an awful lot of vacancies."
Nancy Robertson, the spokeswoman at Sonic, said the fast-food chain pulled out of Oldsmar on Nov. 26 "due to low sales volume." In addition to Sonic, restaurants such as the Twisted Bamboo and Winners Sports Grill were among the year's casualties. (Alberto's Italian Grille and Bar also folded, but a new tenant quickly took its place.)
"That's scary because that means jobs are gone," Ronecker said. "That means people can't afford to pay their rent, their mortgage. It affects everybody."
The problem is not limited to the city's dining scene. Ronecker, whose On Demand Printing business sits among a block of 10,000- to 15,000-square-foot buildings on Mears Boulevard, estimates that 40 percent of his neighbors have vanished.
Most businesses, particularly those that were part of national franchises, left without notifying the city or the chamber of their intentions, said Mike Monahan, the chamber's vice president for business assistance.
"Once the doors were shut," he said, "that's when we found out."
It is Monahan's job to develop programs that help grow business in the area. This year, the chamber established a task force whose primary charge is to locate potential businesses and attract them to the area's industrial parks and vacant retail spaces. The group has been meeting since spring.
"We are also exploring the option and opportunity of some grant money to assist with widening of roads to make the area more attractive to some businesspeople," Monahan said. "There are a couple different things we are looking at. At this point and time, not much has been nailed down. A lot of research, a lot of planning."
City officials are already doing their part.
On Dec. 15, Oldsmar started airing a promotional video on its Web site aimed at luring new businesses to the city. The 50-second clip highlights the city's proximity to different beaches, airports and cities.
In November, the City Council voted to give the chamber $25,000 for its business assistance program in 2010, about $2,500 more than in 2009. The money pays for part of Monahan's salary.
And next year, Oldsmar will consider joining popular social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, Ronecker said. Beyond the city's Web site, Oldsmar's online presence is minimal.
It "gets our name out there," he said, "letting people know that we're here, the benefits that we have."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4167.