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Some downtown businesses say Rays' success has hurt business

ST. PETERSBURG — Amid the cheers and cowbells, some downtown businesses say the Rays' playoff success and surging crowds have meant frustration and disappointment.

Some complain that the sellout games have actually cost them business. Rays fans, they say, bypassed downtown restaurants by riding game-day shuttles or parked for hours in front of their restaurants, taking spots from regular patrons.

"If anything, it's hurt us," said Scott Vogel, owner of Cafe Alma on First Avenue S. "For example, Friday night, it was an absolute ghost town in here. … Everybody was either watching the game in a sports bar, or at home watching the game, or at the game."

It may be a matter of geography.

Restaurants and bars closest to Tropicana Field, like Savannah's Cafe and Ferg's sports bar, have benefited big from the playoffs.

Those farther away are having trouble drawing crowds.

BayWalk, the already struggling entertainment complex near the city's waterfront, has failed to reap rewards from the playoffs, its new owner says.

The team's victory party last month at nearby Straub Park drew some fans to the complex, but Fred Bullard III, whose family recently purchased BayWalk, said he hasn't seen much baseball-related activity.

"We do obviously get some upswing in business when the team is in town, but that's pretty normal, even during the regular season. So overall, it's nothing significant," Bullard said.

Vogel was more blunt. The playoffs increased business "not one bit," he said.

"We're a polished, casual restaurant. We don't really promote the television," he said. "When the playoff games have been going, our sales have been off 50 to 60 percent. And I was a proponent of the new stadium, and now I'm starting to think otherwise."

Not everyone farther from the stadium has been disappointed, though. At Lonni's Sandwiches on Central Avenue, the games have generated excitement and increased business, manager Lisa Murray said.

"With the way the economy is going, a lot of people are brown-bagging it, but the energy and excitement it's brought to downtown has really helped," she said. "We saw a lot of foot traffic."

Many have been ordering the $5.99 Rays' Victory Special: half a ham and cheese sandwich, chips and a drink.

Playoff fever has also drawn more people to the Columbia Restaurant and Cha Cha Coconuts at the Pier, said Curt Gaither, chief operating officer of the Columbia Restaurant Group.

"I think it has definitely helped business, just the excitement of everything that is going on. It's bringing people out and they want to have dinner and they want to have a drink," he said.

Don't tell that to John Mendonca, owner of G's Rotisserie Grill on Fourth Street N. He says the shuttle buses whisk fans past his business. Bryan Chant, who owns the King and I Thai restaurant on Central Avenue, had his own complaints. "They park up here and nobody comes in," he said. "Every time they have a game, we don't make any money."

The playoffs have "helped and hurt at the same time," said Andrea Hamilton, manager at nearby Grillside Central.

"When they played the 2:30 game, a lot of people left their cars at the office and walked down. On the way down, they stopped to eat. When it's the late game, we've gotten some dinner (customers) out of it," she said. "It's really hit and miss."

The Emerald Bar at 550 Central Ave., on the other hand, is consistently packing them in, said bartender Elizabeth Ward. That may have something to do with money. Known for cheap drinks, it's offering specials to thirsty fans.

Closer to the stadium, businesses came up with a plan to entice people to stop. John Warren, owner of Savannah's, said he and others decided to create a family-friendly spot.

"I think the feeling among the merchants in that area was to show that we care and create an area where fans can feel comfortable rather than walking through," he said.

The result: They got permission from the city to close off Central Avenue between 11th and 13th streets and showed games on a 16- by 24-foot screen and offered food, music and drinks.

The games have been a boon for D&J's Cafe, a tiny takeout establishment across the street from Savannah's, said co-owner Daniel James McBride. Fans stop for a bite on the way to the game and return "gassed up" and ready for more, he said.

Ferg's owner Mark Ferguson said business is up four times from what it was a year ago. When Saturday's game against the Boston Red Sox went past closing time, the bar lost about $5,000 in sales, Ferguson said, but it didn't matter.

"Because they won," he said.

Times staff writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727)892-2283.

Some downtown businesses say Rays' success has hurt business 10/15/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 22, 2008 12:26pm]
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