ST. PETE BEACH — The reviews are mixed on how the darkened Beach Theatre is affecting neighboring retailers on Corey Avenue. Shop owners agree, however, that business is making a good comeback after the recession and BP oil spill.
"We're having a fabulous year. Traffic is up, buyer confidence is up," said Cheryl West, owner of Paradise Gifts & Home Decor. "I don't think (the recent theater closing) affects me one way or another. We would hate to see it go for good though."
Betty Lipe, who, with her husband, has owned the Shell Store at 348 Corey Ave. for 38 years, agreed.
"I don't want to see it go. It's a part of the history of this street," she said, standing among abalone from South Africa and carved bonnet shells from Vietnam. "But at some times it did more damage than good."
She thinks the theater patrons often took up parking spaces and prevented shopping customers from strolling the avenue.
The 72-year-old theater has been closed about a month as owner Michael France faces financial problems and a lawsuit from a lender. He and the lender both say they hope to get the theater going again, though it needs expensive upgrades. For now the marquee simply states: "Thanks for the memories."
For John Calabrisi, those memories were sweet but short. He just opened Butter My Buns restaurant across from the Beach Theatre in September and has seen a big drop in business since it closed.
"We were getting traffic in the afternoon when people would come in before the (3 p.m.) movie or get sandwiches and take food in the theater. The owner was fine with that," he said. "Since it closed up, we've lost the lunch crowd. We've stopped opening at night now."
His cafe serves typical deli fare with Boar's Head meats for lunch and hot breakfast in the mornings. Corey Avenue special events such as car shows and the Sunday Fresh Market help develop a clientele but he laments losing the theater business.
The Swigwam Beach Bar might be down a few beer sales since the theater closed but it hasn't taken a big hit, said owner Rob Williams.
Even though a new poolroom with a dartboard is more than compensating for the loss, he looks sadly across the street at the empty building.
"I miss that little theater, I really do," he said. "I sure hope somebody gets it going again."
Whether or not theater patrons were stopping in at neighboring stores, restaurants and bars, they added to the activity of the street, said Debbie Vandaveer, owner of the Blue Sky Boutique at 350 Corey Ave.
"A street that looks busy and full of cars is going to draw people," she declared. "Without a doubt, it has always been a draw to the street."
Still, she points to the versatility of the merchants and their ability to weather tougher blows like oil spills, cold winters and economic downturns. Her season is starting out a little slow but she's not worried.
"We had a good summer," Vandaveer said. "As soon as they get about 10 inches of snow up North, more customers will be back."
Katherine Snow Smith can be contacted at (727) 893-8785 or [email protected]