By year's end, about 12 percent of all retail space in the Tampa Bay area is forecast to be empty. That would be almost double 2006 and the worst vacancy rate since the height of the S&L industry collapse and the 1992 recession. It's enough empty space to fill Tyrone Square Mall four times. Good locations will fill up fast. But with more chains going out of business, closing stores and supplying fewer replacements, many storefronts eventually will become something else. For developers and government that long ago made the strip mall the epitome of Florida architecture and culture, recycled retail is familiar territory. Here's a local look at their past creativity.
STORES: The downtown Sears in St. Petersburg has been a city office building, Fotomat Corp. headquarters and now the county health department. A Pinellas Park Wal-Mart got new life as a Calvary Church. The Pinellas County Housing Authority moved into a one-time Kash n' Karry in Largo. The St. Petersburg College Health Education Center in Pinellas Park was built as a Webb's City discount store. An Eckerd Drugs in St. Petersburg is now Life Skills charter school — the building a remnant of a 1990s drugstore arms race. Other popular post-retail options: self-storage and fitness centers.
SERVICE STATIONS: Gas-pump jockeys once worked at what are now Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill near Tropicana Field, the Lobster Pot restaurant in Redington Shores, Tum Nuk Thai in Seminole and Smoke Barbecue & Grill, a new world barbecue restaurant recently opened by the owners of Ceviche on Platt Street in Tampa. One lingering hint that Smoke was a 1920s gas station is the Kendall Oil sign on a side wall.
RESTAURANTS: The familiar cowboy-town facade fronting U.S. 19 in Largo is evidence that topless club Diamond Dolls started life as a Ponderosa Steakhouse. The Diamond Dolls took over in 1989. In Seminole, Roger's Real Pit Bar-B-Que is now a medical clinic, its huge capped open pit and chimney hidden behind drywall. "We made a big storage room out of it," said practice administrator Susan Groover.
MALLS: Even sprawling regional malls endure. Seventies-era Eastlake Square Mall in Tampa was transformed into Netp@rk Tampa Bay in 1999, a million-square-foot office park whose department stores were renovated into corporate offices for employers such as Medco, HSBC and Alltel. The former Floriland Mall in Tampa has housed a flea market and a county office building.
AUTO DEALERS: The former Onix Salon and Spa in Clearwater was Bennett New Car Alternative. The U.S. Geological Survey office in St. Petersburg began life as a Studebaker dealer. Kafe Kokopelli Restaurant in Dade City was among the first Ford Model T showrooms in Florida. You can see pulley-driven machinery, and the floors are original. "If your table is wobbly, shims available on request," the menu says.
CHECKERS: Retail space often doesn't turn out as planned. Consider, for instance, dozens of local branch banks complete with drive-through windows and walk-in vaults have been transformed into adult bookstores, offices, college classrooms and cell phone stores. Or the tale of Tampa chain Checkers Drive-In Restaurants: Its prefab buildings were made in a Largo factory, then trucked for installation on a foundation. Touted for their easy mobility to better locations, some failed Checkers remained in place with a paint job to become Senor Taco in Clearwater and Bamboo Grill restaurant in St. Petersburg.
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.