In front of 50 of his neighbors, Joseph Stefko offered up his vision for downtown Largo. "It is a jewel in the rough, ready to take off,'' he said.
Stefko, the owner of Hair Jungle on Sixth Street NW, spoke to downtown business owners at the Hampton Inn on Monday night to share his recent work with Largo's Neighborhood Partnership Program as well as encourage the community to step up and help "take this area to the next level.''
After living and working in the area for 14 years, the 46-year-old decided it was time to take action. "All I ever heard is how nobody helps us, and now, I want to say that the city will help us. I learned that it has brought new people on board and this is our chance for success.''
For the past year, Stefko has received guidance from Darci Dore, Largo's neighborhood coordinator hired in April 2007. Together they researched successful communities throughout the region and came up with a game plan. "My job is to help strengthen the neighborhoods,'' said Dore, who studied urban planning at University of Michigan. "Although we're involved in this, we're strictly in a supportive role.''
At the meeting, Stefko proposed a new name for downtown: the Old Northwest.
"We came up with this after meeting with people in the Old Northeast in St. Pete and Hyde Park in Tampa. The first thing I learned was that we needed an identity,'' he said. "We can put it on business cards, or people can quickly say things like, 'Let's go eat at that place in the Old Northwest.' ''
Throughout the evening, business owners applauded Stefko's work. Mike Fisher, owner of MoJo Powersports, expressed relief.
"I've lived here since 1968 and not until I began working in downtown this year did I realize how quaint and how much the area has to offer,'' Fisher said. "I've heard how important identity and branding is these days, and I think your work is great.''
Stefko told the crowd it's also time to build an online directory. It will be linked to the city's Web site. "This area is due to explode. With the economy the way it is, we have to join together and use what the city has to offer as well.''
This is not the first time the downtown business community has attempted to join forces. In 1998, with support from Florida's Main Street program, businesses formed the Largo Main Street Association. The group disbanded in 2006.
Charles Graul, Largo Main Street's last president, was told of the new endeavor in a phone interview Tuesday night. He was skeptical. "This has been tried before. My advice would be to not reinvent the wheel.''
Graul believes the reason for the last group's demise was that business owners, the chamber and the city didn't work together easily. "The day Main Street ended was a sad day. The group was like family,'' he said.
Stefko acknowledges the challenges ahead, but he believes the city has changed. "I was here when Main Street was around. Things were just starting to redevelop during that time, and now these are new times. I'm staying positive.''