ST. PETE BEACH — A diverse mix of shops and restaurants line Corey Avenue, the heart of St. Pete Beach's business district. Brightly colored signs and a steady flow of pedestrians give the impression of a bustling beach community.
But three vacant storefronts on the east end of the corridor hint at underlying economic anxiety.
Local merchants feel the pinch of a nationwide economic downturn, rising oil prices and a decrease in tourism, yet many remain optimistic about the future.
Peter Roos and his wife publish Paradise News, a small paper focused on St. Pete Beach. He said a number of forces have placed stress on local businesses, including a loss of hotel rooms and hurricane worries, causing a decrease in summer tourism, along with stagnation in the overall economy.
"People have just been discouraged," he said. "The economy, the value of the dollar, fuel prices and the continuing war — any one could cause problems.
"It's a cumulative effect of forces," Roos said. "But I think it's going to turn around in the next year, I do. I think it's an attitude thing."
Roos said he thinks a more business friendly City Council and the possibility of hotel development in the next few years have made local business owners more optimistic, and he hopes that will bring new businesses into the area.
"Hopefully the feeling something is going on will fill some of the vacancies," he said.
Kathi Hanson owns Fun in the Sun, where she sells flags, kites and windsocks. She said her optimism stems from a concerted effort to market St. Pete Beach businesses, and that she hopes their efforts result in residents from surrounding areas discovering all they have to offer.
"We are trying hard to network together," she said. "This is really a fun little place."
Several business owners praised events such as "Last Friday" for bringing more local people into the downtown area. On the last Friday of the month, local merchants stay open late. The event also features live music and wine tasting.
Ken Lipe, owner of the Shell Store, said business was awful through the last six months of 2007, but spring has been fine.
"It's been a decent season," he said.
Lipe faults the 2004 hurricane season and predictions of active seasons the following years for a decrease in summer tourism.
"When people are planning for their one big vacation in the year, they don't want to risk going somewhere and having it ruined," he said.
But a negative for the economy as a whole may prove a boon for businesses that depend on tourism. While economists worry about the declining value of the dollar, Lipe hopes the relative strength of European currency will increase the number of foreign tourists this summer.
"I've already had several people from Europe in the store, and summer is the season for foreign tourism," he said.
Michael Maharrey can be reached at (727) 893-8779 or email@example.com.