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Largo merchants band together to forge downtown identity and lure customers

In a matter of months, two restaurants, a furniture shop, a jewelry store, a salon and an auto repair shop on West Bay Drive packed up and left.

"I didn't get scared until I was open for two or three weeks and people didn't come in for days," said John Jacobs, 43, who opened J Roc's sandwich shop in September.

For years, shop owners like Jacobs have been struggling to survive and thrive in the city's traditional downtown.

The dismal economy has made things tougher. But some long-term businesses have weathered the rough times. And a handful of new ones have set up shop, hoping for the best.

A few have some of the same beefs that area businesses have had for years. Among them: The strict city sign regulations and the not-so-strict adherence to the 30 mph speed limit make their shops barely visible to passers-by.

"You can't slow the traffic down enough to view the stores," Jacobs said. "That is the one thing that's killing us."

Some days, Jacobs walks out of his shop and leans against the railing out front.

"I can see the empty buildings and see the cars passing by at 45 mph. And people don't even look," Jacobs said. "I'm like a ghost."

To get customers in the door, shop owners are doling out big deals. A couple of weeks ago, Jacobs offered his super-stacked deli-style sandwiches on the cheap.

A sign saying "Any Sandwich and Drink Only $2.99" persuaded former Commissioner Herb James to stop by.

"It was so good," said James, 87, who devoured a hefty club sandwich. "I didn't even know there was a restaurant there."

Jacobs and other merchants are trying to stay positive, because they have to.

"Anybody can open a shop and put money into it and a year later they're gone," said Joseph Stefko, who has lived and worked in the area about 15 years. "I have to make it. This is my livelihood."

About a year ago, Stefko, who runs the Hair Jungle in a 1950s bungalow just a block north of West Bay Drive, created a neighborhood group called Old Northwest.

Since then, dozens of business owners and residents in the area near West Bay Drive and Clearwater-Largo Road have joined Old Northwest. The free grass roots group relies on a combination of old-fashioned networking and newfangled marketing.

Over the years, the area has had a few local merchant groups. Downtown Largo Main Street Association disbanded in 2006 after the city cut funding. There had been no similar effort for a while.

It was time, Stefko said.

A key focus of Old Northwest, which meets once a month, is branding. Shop owners tell their customers they're in Old Northwest and decorate their stores with Old Northwest signs and stickers.

Old Northwest creates a new identity, Stefko told members of the group, who met last month at Tropical Smoothie Cafe on West Bay Drive.

"That's why we have to get branded, so people know who we are," said Stefko, 47.

Several of the members swear by Old Northwest.

"As small-business owners, we all have the same fight, the same pain," said Rebecca Paone, an agent at Keller Williams Realty on West Bay Drive. "We're all here to support one another."

Michael Brandt, who opened Gulf Coast Po' Boys on West Bay Drive in July, said Old Northwest helped him and his partner, Anthony Jack, connect with other local business owners .

"We didn't know a single person here," said Brandt, who previously ran restaurants for a high-end Cajun chef in New York City.

Group members help each other out and recommend each other to their customers, he said.

"You want to see everybody succeed," said Brandt, 46, who has piles of his neighbors' business cards on a shelf near the front door.

The group fills an important niche, said Largo/Mid-Pinellas Chamber of Commerce president Tom Morrissette.

"I think what they're doing is great," Morrissette said. "They've really come together, almost as a resurrection of the old Main Street group."

Not everybody is impressed.

Jacobs, a former corporate trainer from Texas, gave the group a try, and said, so far, it's a lot of talk and little action.

"It's a big pep rally, but there's no focus on an issue," Jacobs said.

The group is just building momentum and membership, Stefko said. About 20 to 70 people show up for monthly meetings, he said.

"This thing is just starting to get going now," Stefko said. "You need numbers to make things happen."

Stephanie Williams is thinking about joining Old Northwest. On Monday, she opened a salon and skin care shop next door to Gulf Coast Po' Boys.

"I just feel like it's the right time," she said.

Jacobs has been thinking about closing.

"We're not even close to breaking even," said Jacobs, whose sons, Joshua, 19, and Hayden, 20, work with him. "I'm not even paying my boys yet."

But for now, he's hanging on. He and others downtown say they get a special thrill from running their own mom-and-pops.

"I've never been happier than working at this sandwich shop," Jacobs said. "I've never got this kind of rush from training sales agents and customer service people."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at or (727) 445-4155.

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Largo merchants band together to forge downtown identity and lure customers 12/05/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 4, 2009 6:34pm]
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