Imagine a store twice the size of a Home Depot with 1,700 parking spaces, 400 employees and a cafeteria that can feed 350 with everything from cinnamon rolls to meatballs. Now imagine that this behemoth, touted to inspire a big boom for surrounding neighborhoods, actually landed with something of a soft thud.
Surprisingly, that was the case with Ikea, which celebrated its first anniversary this month.
At the store's groundbreaking ceremony in 2008, Mayor Pam Iorio said, "I can't help but think that a sizable group of people who spend the day shopping at Ikea will also then want to experience the wonders of our great historical district."
She also highlighted Ikea's opening at her recent state of the city speech.
While the Swedish superstore brought jobs and had a noticeable social impact on Tampa, it hasn't generated the business growth that many expected.
It didn't flood surrounding Ybor City cigar shops and Greek, Italian and Latin restaurants with spillover business, as the mayor and others had hoped.
The bright side? The store hasn't stolen customers from those same establishments either.
If anything, Ikea has been a great neighbor, consistently promoting Ybor's history and festivals, said Tom Keating, president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce.
But some had hoped the store would help turn the nighttime entertainment district into a daytime destination by attracting new businesses and bringing in shoppers from all over the region.
Instead, Ikea has become a destination all by itself.
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Yes, Ikea has provided Ybor with some customers. Keating recalled all the Ikea managers coming to Ybor restaurants for lunch when the store was under construction.
Centro Ybor director of operations Carl Dalcerro said the furnisher seems to have swept in some tourists to his 24-business complex.
But for many, the overall economic impact appears negligible. Dalcerro noted that Centro Ybor has seen no change in the number of vacancies since the superstore opened.
Said Jerry Kistler, owner of the Laughing Cat restaurant: "If people are going to spend money there, they're really not going anywhere else because they serve food also."
Area business owners now realize that Ikea customers drive far and wide to the all-in-one superstore — and then head straight home.
According to Ikea, the average shopper spends at least two hours in the store, where a single lap can take two-thirds of a mile. Hungry? Ikea's cafeteria often sells meals for under $2 or, on Thursdays, rebates customers store credits for every dollar spent on food.
"Even if we don't buy anything, we come to have a good time eating," said Ramon Martos, 34, of Brandon, who comes to Ikea about once a month with his family.
Karen Wheeler, 44, of Lakeland, journeys to 22nd Street and Adamo Drive several times a month, but doesn't consider going to other businesses less than a mile away in Ybor. "Most of the time we just come here," she said.
This isn't what area businesses expected a year ago when they couldn't wait for the store to open, dubbing its invigorating effect as the "Ikea-zation" of the area.
"We like it," Jennifer Willman, president of the Palmetto Beach Community Association, said of the furnisher. "But I haven't noticed — just driving around — any influx of new customers. My impression is that it really hasn't had an influence on the neighborhood. I feel that their customers aren't coming into our neighborhood. I wish there was more activity coming from the Ikea customers."
None of this surprises developers, who have shied away from building around Ikea, in part because there are few businesses that can offer something different, said Brad Monroe, real estate agent and past president of the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors.
"They feed you," Monroe said. "They entertain you. They sell you everything you need. What is Ikea not selling?"
Still, Monroe blames the recession for the lack of new development near Ikea.
And Ikea spokeswoman Debra Faulk agrees. "It's just a challenging time. But we have seen historically that development does occur around Ikea, and we welcome it."
Furniture Row, a retail chain, owns a dormant parcel near the superstore on N 26th Street — proof that retailers did want to build nearby. "We obviously purchased the site, but construction has been put on hold for most retailers," said Woody Boyd, Furniture Row real estate director. "So we're just holding on for now and riding out the storm."
Still, the city of Centennial, Colo., even gave the home furnisher up to $18 million in financial incentives to build a 415,000-square-foot store because of the expected development Ikea typically stimulates, the Denver Post reported this month.
In Tampa Bay, Faulk said, Ikea has offered to help local leaders attract other corporations. Its store manager is on the Ybor chamber's board. On weekdays, when the store doesn't open until 11 a.m., store workers tell early birds to go into Ybor, buy breakfast and a cafe con leche and return, she said. Last month, Ikea bought 50 managers festival tickets to Ybor Aficionado Days as a reward.
The store has also worked with the Ybor Hampton Inn to develop a shop and play package, and it brought Frisbees to the Palmetto Beach association's spring festival. Store officials even attended a neighborhood crime watch meeting.
A storewide scavenger hunt featured Ybor history and pictures, and the megastore hosted a cigarmaker while he rolled the world's longest cigar. It promoted the Ybor City Museum Society's cookbook by selling its lime chicken as a manager special. In June, it plans to hold a domino contest to highlight Ybor's longtime cantina game.
"We want to be a good neighbor," Faulk said. "That really is from the heart."
Businesses say that seems genuine, said Mark Wilson, owner of Empire Discount Paint & Hardware on Seventh Avenue, who has had a handful of clients referred to him by Ikea.
Wilson said his paint store seemed ideal to suction off some of Ikea's clientele that need paint to match a bookshelf. But that hasn't really happened.
"I would say that I don't know if they've had a lot of impact on me," Wilson said. "I'm not far from there, and I know they have a big presence. But my sales are down this year, and it's sort of unrelated."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.