Last week I went to the lovely little town of Mount Dora with a quartet of good friends for a day on the town, and we all learned something we never expected about the most essential element for a successful downtown.
Let me confess up front that we all went with agendas. We're all very interested in fine arts and small town redevelopment, and we were checking out the scene for ideas (and for something to buy, of course). In the past couple of decades, Mount Dora has blossomed as a destination place, and we wanted to see why.
Is it the lacy trees along the streets and old-fashioned overhangs on many stores that provide respite from the sun? Is it the mix of stores: antiques, clothing, artworks, books, and not a few tchotchkes? Or is it the wide variety of restaurants: French crepes at one place, Tex-Mex at another, an English tea room, American fare, Thai and sushi places, the gorgeous old Lakeside Inn overlooking Lake Dora?
Could it be the abundance of free parking, both along the streets and in seven conveniently located parking lots, which makes it possible to drop off purchases and then go buy some more?
Yes, it's all that.
But something essential is missing:
Enough comfort stations, a.k.a. public toilets.
Yes, there's a reasonably nice public restroom near the Chamber of Commerce building (the former depot). But the day we were there, only a couple of the stalls were in working order, which meant an antsy, dancy queue after a long ride to town.
More distressing, the little building is at the outer edge of the shopping district, which means you have to hike six blocks or more from many of the best shops and sights, or a 12-block round trip — no easy feat after you've sipped a 20-ounce bottle of water to avoid dehydration or shopped till you're ready to drop.
During my many earlier visits to Mount Dora, I had found several friendly shopkeepers who would lend a key to their restrooms so you could get back to your serious shopping, but this time around, those old faithfuls had changed their minds and gave a sharp "only for employees" response to our semidesperate requests.
Many shops and restaurants have put "Restrooms Not Open to the Public" signs in their windows, along with signs warning against unruly or overly curious children, with a few penciling in "and husbands."
Apparently, some local shopkeepers have had bad encounters with less-than-civilized visitors and have become wary of almost anyone who comes in.
Whatever lessons they've learned, they taught us an important one. If you want to keep downtown visitors downtown, make sure all of their physical needs are met, conveniently.
The Beatles have a great song, Eight Days a Week, about loving a girl so much, the seven-day week isn't enough time.
I've often teased Nick and Sal Sessa about their 10-day weeks at their Show Palace Dinner Theatre, Palace Grand and Palace Plaza. During high season, one week may include six dinner shows at the Show Palace and four or more weddings, banquets or miniconventions at their other two venues.
They start the evening at one place, then drive back and forth to take care of customers at all three. It's like throwing 10 big weddings and wedding receptions a week. (One a lifetime is more than enough for most of us.)
So I wasn't really surprised that when Sal Sessa celebrated a significant birthday, he decided to leave the entertainment business, rest up a while, then get into something with a week that's seven days or less.
Nick Sessa bought him out and brought on doo-wop singer Tommy Mara as his new partner. Mara is lining up special-interest shows at the Palace Grand, so far filling the seats for the nostalgia group Let's Hang On and lining up a tribute to the 1970s duo Karen and Richard Carpenter (Close to You, We've Only Just Begun) on Aug. 27, the adult music comedy show "Italian Chicks" on Sept. 9, the salsa band Fiesta Orchestra on Sept. 16, and the muscle-man, ladies night experience, "Men the Show," on Oct. 7. Tickets are $20, with the bar and a light menu available at extra cost.
Meanwhile, back at the Show Palace, Nick Sessa has turned the break room adjacent to the front patio into an open-fronted bar, so early arrivals can have a drink, visit, watch the sunset and perhaps see some live entertainers before the doors open for Show Palace events.
Looks as though Nick is going for the 12-day week.