LARGO — Few streets in the city have seen such dramatic makeovers as Clearwater-Largo Road.
Once a hardscrabble part of town known for prostitutes and low-rent mobile homes, the corridor north of West Bay Drive has seen a city-backed rejuvenation in recent years.
Nearly $4 million in redevelopment money has been put to use upgrading the infrastructure along the former stretch of Alt. U.S. 19.
Landscaped medians have replaced graying asphalt, and well-marked crosswalks protect the increasing number of pedestrians who traverse the still-white sidewalks.
The investment by the city was meant to rejuvenate the district, to attract businesses, and make the stretch a more habitable, community street.
By some measures, the changes have been a success.
Businesses were attracted by the promise of a bright future.
But the abysmal economy also struck hard.
Three once-popular locally owned restaurants — Jorge's Seafood Grille, the Skinny Rooster and Grillmarks — all shut their doors this year.
"It closed because we got tired of it — how it was slow. Not enough customers," said Shenzi Balla, the owner of Jorge's.
Balla said after the restaurant opened five years ago, business was good. But over the past two years, dining out became something customers did less often.
Other now-vacant restaurants in the area include Beef O'Brady's and Pastino's Neighborhood Grill & Pizzeria. Other vacant storefronts also include a law office and a martial arts studio.
The survivors, like Bella D'Ora's Pizza, are hanging on — but just barely.
"We moved up here because they had this corridor, all this development," said Michael Paloscio, the owner.
But the aspiration did not meet the reality.
"It seems like everything has stopped," Paloscio said. "We've been struggling almost since we got here. People that were regulars, they say times are tough.
"We've mortgaged our house to the hilt to keep this going."
The spate of defunct businesses paints a mixed picture of the corridor, as both an area recovering from a hardscrabble past, and of the difficulty of small business ownership in a recession.
While the road may not be shaping up to be the Restaurant Row of Largo, city officials point to the businesses that have maintained a foothold there as signs the area is living up to its promise.
Some of these include the Health South rehabilitation center, Pinch-a-Penny pool supply store and Happy Feet Plus, a shoe store.
"Our goal is to create that neighborhood environment," said Theresa Brydon, the city's economic development manager. "That's what we've really been working on. We go in. We renovate."
The goal is to transform the formerly barren area into a "live, work and shop" neighborhood area, according to the redevelopment plan for the district.
Brydon said as the area develops further, with market-rate homes and condos replacing low-income housing, the area should pick up further.
Data from the city shows that about 3,000 people live in the Clearwater-Largo Road redevelopment district. The median home value is about $71,000, and many residents are classified as living below the poverty line.
Certainly, property values climbed for some buildings redeveloped with city assistance.
Happy Feet, the shoe store, is located on property that is worth $935,001, twice as much as it was in 2000 and that's down from a 2008 peak of more than $1.1 million.
And even with the trail of empty restaurants, new business owners still feel the area is worth an investment.
Eva and Richard Sikorski, owners of the just-opened Baltic Amber restaurant (which moved into the vacant space left by the Skinny Rooster), decided that now is as good a time as any to run their own Polish restaurant in addition to their other Largo food staple, Sikorski's Deli.
But why open a restaurant on a road when others around are sputtering?
"Why not?" Eva Sikorski said shortly after the grand opening last week. "Is it going to help us if we wait around until things get better?"
Is it a gamble? Yes.
But, Sikorski said, like when she left behind her native Poland for the United States in the '70s, big gambles lead to big rewards.
"Coming here from Europe, that was a gamble in itself," she said. "It paid off."
Dominick Tao can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 580-2951.