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Recipe for bitterness: Take hopeful restaurateur, add reams of Tampa rules

Roger Perry has owned a large pet store chain and thoroughbred horses, but his longtime dream was to start a gourmet neighborhood deli.

In 2007 he decided it was time. Not long after Perry moved his family from Ocala to Hyde Park, he purchased the two-story building at 2616 S MacDill Ave.

Coming up with a name — Datz Delicatessen — spreading the word and creating a menu?

Easy.

Transforming the building to meet Tampa's building and zoning codes?

Stupefying, Perry said.

And expensive.

"This project easily cost me twice what it should have," he said.

His story is not unique. Despite an influx of new businesses in the area, various restaurateurs say that at a time when government is striving to spur the economy, the bureaucracy in Tampa has become an unreasonable and costly hurdle to success.

• • •

Perry was excited about opening his deli in a building that had been home to a florist and, long ago, the legendary Mise en Place restaurant. But optimism faded as city code demands trickled in.

He said he spent about $200,000 extra on fees, additional construction, plan revisions and lost business from delays. He also bought a nearby lot for $525,000 — from the city — so the deli could meet parking requirements.

Finally, Datz opened in January — about 14 months after he bought the building.

"I can see why businesses fail," Perry said. "You spend all your money fighting City Hall instead of on things that make your business grow."

Mike Huynh knows the feeling.

Last month, Huynh opened Indochinois on S Dale Mabry — after wading through 15 months of red tape with the city. It was the restaurant's second location; his family opened the original 20 years ago on Gandy Boulevard.

Huynh knew that the former insurance office on Dale Mabry would have to be rebuilt, so he hired a contractor and designer.

Still, it wasn't enough.

"You have to submit your plans to all these different departments, but nobody tells you that," he said. "You get very discouraged. I will not do another restaurant in the city of Tampa. I won't go through that again."

• • •

Sara Fox of the Fox and the Fig catering service has a story to tell, too. The 32-year-old moved into an otherwise empty building on Platt Street last year and made the rookie mistake of acting as her own general contractor.

The plan reviewer, the plumber and the plumbing inspector all had signed off on the job, she said. But the day she was to get her occupancy certificate, the city told her that plumbing for a hand sink would have to be moved 5 feet. Another delay.

"It's a lot easier running a business than opening one," Fox said.

Cyndy Miller, the city's director of growth management and development services, has heard the complaints many times.

"Folks that own restaurants want to do a fantastic job, serve good food, and you get into codes and parking and buildings, and it's a new world," she said. "It's the creative folks that really want to do great things, and then they get bogged down."

Most delays arise when new tenants or owners want to change the way an existing building is used, triggering the need for rezoning, or complex interior or exterior changes. That means city departments must get involved, with each making its own assessment. They'll check parking, landscaping, drainage, neighborhood impact and more.

The codes can seem overly complex and even conflicting for entrepreneurs.

"The right hand says, 'If you do this you're good to go,' and the left hand comes back and says, 'Oh, you shouldn't do this,' " said Susan Long, the former president of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association who has helped people navigate the maze of city departments.

Gloria Moreda, whose department oversees zoning issues, is sympathetic. But the rules were created with feedback from the community to protect neighborhoods, she said.

"These codes weren't drafted to make businesses suffer."

• • •

In late 2006, Nina Torres bought a 1920s bungalow on 6508 N Florida Ave. in Seminole Heights and decided to transform it into the main location for Cakes Plus, the business she started 17 years ago.

Though the building was zoned for commercial use, she learned that the city required major renovations. She would have to reroute parking traffic away from an oak tree along the property line, move a garbage bin, and add a retention pond and parking, among other things.

Despite support from neighborhood leaders such as Long, two years passed before the plans were approved and permits issued.

Now, Torres said, she has spent so much on the mortgage, property taxes and plan revisions, she can't afford the renovations.

"It's been a nightmare," she said.

In December she moved Cakes Plus near Huynh's Indochinois in the Carriage Trade Plaza. She doesn't want to sell the bungalow but may run out of time. She still doesn't have the money to renovate — and those permits are good only for six months.

• • •

Stories like these prompted the city to review its zoning codes.

Officials are considering a new community plan using "form-based code," which could loosen restrictions by emphasizing the aesthetics of a building and the way it fits the neighborhood, instead of what the building is used for.

If adopted, Seminole Heights would be the first local community to implement the codes, which have been used in other cities with success.

Also, an ombudsman may eventually serve as a point person for small-business owners. Thom Snelling, Miller's deputy director, currently fills that role.

And the city wants to update its computer systems so that plans and drawings are shared easily among departments, Miller said.

Those changes — all of them at least a year or two down the line — won't help the entrepreneurs trying to open a new business amid the recession.

"You get a mom-and-pop, and (the delays) will destroy them," said Long, who used to head the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association.

Perry has become jaded by his experience with Tampa.

He has tried to create jobs here, he said, hiring 80 employees at Datz Deli so far. But "not one person in the city ever came to me and said, 'Roger, what can we do to help you?' All I get is, 'Roger, you have to do this, you can't do that and, oh, by the way here is what it is going to cost you.' "

At one point, he had considered redeveloping other portions of MacDill Avenue. That won't happen now, said his wife, Suzanne.

"We're trying to improve a community we live in," she said. "We care. These are our neighbors and our friends.

"But we're done."

One restaurateur's story

Roger Perry estimates he spent $200,000 on unanticipated expenses so his Datz Delicatessen building could meet the city's requirements. Here are examples of some costs, according to Perry:

$61,000 to access a water line on the other side of MacDill Avenue for the building's sprinkler system. The water line next to the building was inadequate, officials told him.

$4,000 to move a telephone pole to make room for the Dumpster.

$5,000 to reroute plumbing after plans were approved and plumbing installed.

$3,500 to switch the toilet and sink in two restrooms after plumbing was installed according to approved plans.

$8,000 to the city for increasing traffic on MacDill.

$10,000 on landscaping to a once-barren lot and parking area.

Rx for business owners

Business owners may avoid some surprises and navigate the city's building and zoning codes more smoothly by following a few tips:

• Before purchasing or leasing a location, ask the city for a preliminary assessment of your plan for that site.

• Hire an architect or contractor well versed in city codes. It may be expensive but could pay for itself in the long run.

• Keep an eye out for a sympathetic city employee, a "guardian angel" to call for advice when you run into snags.

• Make contact with deputy director of growth management Thom Snelling, who is serving as somewhat of an ombudsman for business owners. His number is (813) 264-8577; e-mail is thomas.snelling@tampagov.net.

Sources: Tampa construction services manager John Barrios; Cyndy Miller, director of growth management and development services; Sara Fox, owner of the Fox and the Fig catering

Recipe for bitterness: Take hopeful restaurateur, add reams of Tampa rules 02/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2009 3:30am]

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