PORT RICHEY — Ramesh Patel said he did his best to give the community a place to work and socialize at the USA Flea Market.
As general manager, he was in charge of managing and maintaining the 40-acre property along U.S. 19, where about 70 vendors worked on weekends. He spent almost every weekend, and sometimes his entire week, there.
But after the market was forced to close June 14 after Pasco County officials condemned the structure, demolition began last week to tear it down. And Patel, who purchased it with his company, NAIDIP 19-52 LLC, in 2006, says he has no plans to restart the market.
"We were doing it because ... people were surviving there," said Patel. "They were earning their bread and butter."
Patel thinks the county overreacted in deciding to condemn and tear down the building.
"You don't kill the human just to kill the cancer," he said, "and that's exactly what they did."
The same year Patel bought the market, it was cited multiple times for safety and code issues, but the building's ultimate condemnation came as a result of a recent investigation into an auto sales business. County inspectors designated the building as a fire trap, designating it unsafe.
Pasco County spokesman Doug Tobin wrote in an email that the inspection was part of the county's "high-return enforcement" approach, a move away from a complaint-based to a proactive method to identify high-risk properties and repeat violators.
Susan Waldroupe began shopping at the market in 1991.
During strawberry and blueberry season, shoppers could find her roaming the stalls of the market, looking for fruit. She stuck to the market for its fresh produce, buying everything from watermelons to green peppers there.
Last September, she became the market's "Jerky Lady," renting a table in the market for $18 a day, selling chicken- and beef-flavored jerky.
Waldroupe, 59, said she was drawn to the market because vendors sold unusual items that couldn't be found at stores.
Plus, she said, "I've met a lot of good people that were vendors out there." There was the Glass Etching Lady and the Tin Lady, whom she branded by their products.
The market hadn't been Waldroupe's main source of income, but she was trying to start her own jerky business. She started with eight flavors; now she has 23.
"I was really upset (when it closed). I thought, well what in the world, I just paid my rent," the New Port Richey resident recalled.
David Orr, project manager with JVS Contracting, which is heading up the demolition effort, said when he began inspecting the building, he could understand why it was condemned. There were extension cords everywhere, open electrical boxes and blocked exits.
"I can see that it wasn't worth trying to save," said Orr, who said he also understood that part of the community saw the market as a place to socialize, as well as to make money. "It's almost like a little city."
But it would have only taken a small fire and a frightened crowd, he said, for something to go wrong.
Kathy Bailey remembers walking down the aisles with a cup of coffee in her hand on Saturday mornings, greeting all of her booth mates. After 16 years of selling aromatherapy products, it had become a home away from home for her.
"I looked forward to going to work on the weekends because I got to see the rest of my family," said Bailey, 52, whose main source of income was working her booth, Stinkin Pretty Aromatherapy.
The Spring Hill resident said she began working at the market after quitting her job as a hairdresser, joining her sister there. When she received the call in June letting her know that she had seven days to move from the booth she paid $263 a month to rent, she couldn't believe it.
"We were all real sorry to hear it," said Bailey, who now runs her shop out of the Oldsmar Flea Market. She said it cost about $1,000 to relocate her shop to Oldsmar, to which other USA Flea Market vendors migrated as well. But even now with familiar faces around her, she still feels out of place.
Her business, she said, is suffering as well. She no longer has the same clientele, and she's afraid that when seasonal Floridians start coming back south, they won't be able to find her.
She's hoping that come Christmas time, her wax-dipped teddy bears that sell for $25 each will help her stay in business. She calls them "everlasting air fresheners," achieved by dipping stuffed bears into 185-degree wax.
Bailey said she blames the county, not Patel, for the market shutting down.
"I blame the county a lot, because they shouldn't have stopped inspecting the market 10 years ago," she said. "If you quit inspecting a building that has tenants in it, what do you expect? It's going to be run down."