WESTCHASE — It was just after 6 on a recent Friday night. Bumper-to-bumper traffic choked Linebaugh Avenue and the Westchase Town Center parking lot was full.
But the families that milled about the parking lot didn't stop inside the 100,000-square-foot complex for a scoop of ice cream from Cold Stone Creamery or a cup of java from Altieri's Coffee Tea & Dessert.
Most of them bypassed the Town Center and migrated across the street to an elementary school festival.
"How could it be that many people in Westchase and there's not a soul in here," asked Dean Howe, who lives in West Park Village, a community of homes and upscale townhomes that surround the Town Center. "They should be packed."
Yet even in an area where home prices exceed a half-million dollars, the Town Center is anything but happening.
Pete's Steakhouse Italian Grille, which closed Nov. 10, is the latest casualty. The restaurant was one of the larger ones in the complex.
Town Center's former business owners have cited various reasons for the complex's gradual decline in recent months but, like so many others, landlord Alan Charron pointed to the economy.
To be clear, there are thriving businesses, Tijuana Flats Burrito Co. and World of Beer among them. Howe, one of only a handful of customers passing through the Town Center on that recent Friday, was headed to the former to pick up dinner for his wife.
But Master Locks and white, blue and red "AVAILABLE" signs dot empty storefront after empty storefront.
According to a Nov. 4 complaint filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court, Charron served the owners of Pete's Steakhouse with an eviction notice on Oct. 10.
Through Oct. 31, they owed Charron $32,861 in back rent plus $15,000 in fees, among other costs, according to the complaint.
The eviction of Pete's brings the number of businesses that have closed to at least seven. Some moved or no longer exist. Others were thrown out of the 2-year-old Town Center.
Steakhouse owner Peter Salvatore, who said he has opened and sold eight successful restaurants in Cape Coral, Fort Myers and Naples, acknowledged that he fell behind a couple of months. The Town Center was a dead zone, he said. Business was never good enough to cover the rent, which was $9,800 per month.
From October 2007 to October 2008, Salvatore said he pumped $88,000 of his own money into the business to keep the doors open. He said he was in the middle of negotiating a lower rental amount when Charron evicted him. He said he isn't indebted to his former landlord. He left behind a $25,000 hood, a $21,000 air conditioner and a $4,500 water heater.
"That's equal to the money we owe him," Salvatore said. "A little bit more actually."
An attorney for Charron did not return a call or e-mail seeking comment. In an e-mail sent to the St. Petersburg Times in October, Charron said he was doing everything he could to work with struggling tenants.
"It is unfortunate that various persons refuse to hold up their end of agreements made, leaving us with no alternative but to pursue litigation," said Charron, the president of Real Property Specialists, which has offices in Orlando and Tampa.
The troubles with tenants aren't reflective of the Town Center, he said in the e-mail, but of a weak economy.
"Please do not single out Westchase Town Center as a singular instance of losing tenants," Charron said. "This situation is happening over numerous centers across Florida, and apparent in many centers in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties."
The Town Center's neighboring retail complex in West Park Village, experienced similar problems two years ago. It lost three tenants in 2006.
One closed. Two moved to different locations. At least one company, Anni's Paperchase, relocated to the more established Grand Plaza in Carrollwood because owners said there wasn't enough customer traffic passing through West Park Village.
To grow business at the Town Center, Charron said he has advertised in local periodicals, hosted weekend festivities and erected signs along Linebaugh Avenue at no cost to tenants.
Is any of it working?
Homeowners say the answer can be found at the Town Center.
"Look at your vacancies," Howe said, pointing at the dark buildings around him.
He said the Town Center offers few things everyday people want. He said Charron should survey homeowners and find out what kinds of stores they would support and how much they would be willing to spend.
Meanwhile, Salvatore and his wife are lamenting the closure of their business. "We lost our life's savings," Teresa Salvatore said. "We lost everything."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5303.