LARGO — More than a decade ago, Largo moved its City Hall off West Bay Drive, clearing the way for a $12 million downtown project with 54 townhomes and a 21,000-square-foot commercial center.
The development, called West Bay Village, was supposed to rejuvenate downtown, convincing other developers to invest there.
But the district has seen little redevelopment. And today, about two-thirds of West Bay Village's commercial center is vacant.
"Available" signs line shop windows along West Bay Drive. Just three shop owners remain in the complex.
Remarkably, none say they're suffering.
Ed Brewer, general manager of the Thirsty Marlin Grill & Bar, said closures of several other nearby restaurants have actually boosted business a bit.
But the near-vacant center has one major downfall.
"It kind of looks like a ghost town," Brewer said. "A lot of people drive on by."
Despite vacant storefronts, the two commercial buildings, with their grand archways and decorative awnings, still look pristine. A park and a gazebo are nestled between the two buildings. The grounds are lush and well-manicured.
In 2002, Hyde Park Builders bought the 8-acre property from the city for $1.08 million, about half of its appraised value. The developer soon broke ground on luxury townhomes with French doors and white picket fences. The homes sold well. And about two years later, the commercial complex made its debut.
Crispers restaurant opened its doors first. And, eventually, other businesses flocked to the 11-unit center. A salon, a fitness center, an ice cream shop, a jewelry store, a rehabilitation center, a vitamin store and a few restaurants later called the complex home.
Crispers left abruptly in 2009. A spokesperson for the chain said its owner didn't have "consistency" at that location.
Nearly two years later, the east building of the two-building complex is vacant. Just Apex Rehabilitation Center, the Vitamin Discount Center and Thirsty Marlin remain in the west building.
Most days, the center draws little foot traffic. Apex, which relies mostly on doctors' referrals, doesn't need the constant bustle of patrons to survive.
"Our patients love the plaza," said Angie Royer, office manager at Apex. "They think it's quaint."
Jason King, manager at the Vitamin Discount Center, said name recognition has helped his shop stay afloat.
"We're doing fine," King said. "I can't speak for anybody else in the plaza because, well, there's barely anyone else here."
With hopes of reviving the downtown area, the city invested about $14 million in improvements, including widening West Bay Drive, landscaping and adding fancy street lights.
Many commercial projects have flopped in the sluggish economy, but there has been a lot of speculation about why this complex, in particular, has faltered.
Former tenant Michael Peters, who co-owns Salon West, said there were three main reasons why they moved the shop out of West Bay Village and down the road to the Publix shopping center.
One was Crispers' departure, which led to the flight of most tenants.
Another was Largo's strict sign rules.
"You couldn't see us from the road," said Peters, whose salon was on the side of the building facing the gazebo.
The top reason, Peters said, was the high monthly rent. For about 1,640 square feet, he was paying about $4,700 a month, including fees to cover insurance and property taxes, he said.
In his new location, he said, "I almost doubled the space and was able to pay the same amount in rent."
Peters doesn't blame his old landlord. He thinks the fault lies with local government officials for not easing the tax burden on commercial property owners and not valuing properties realistically.
Teresa Brydon, Largo's economic development manager, said businesses in the complex did struggle to compete with older businesses around them that had lower rents.
Even though BayWalk, a two-story open-air shopping center in downtown St. Petersburg, and West Bay Village are quite different projects, Brydon sees similarities.
Early on, both did relatively well, said Brydon, who previously worked for St. Petersburg. However, she said, the rents continued to go up for tenants at each and it wasn't a good deal for them.
"The unfortunate piece for both of these projects is that the property taxes and insurance costs caused them to not be competitive in the open market," Brydon said.
Both Brydon and Largo's community development director, Carol Stricklin, also think the complex may have fared better if it had two stories and a greater variety of shops, restaurants and offices.
There's a synergy that develops when there's a mix of employment, services and restaurants, Stricklin said. And community surveys showed that people wanted more activities downtown so they could come there for multiple purposes, Stricklin said.
"That project wasn't enough to create that kind of attraction," Stricklin said.
Scott Shimberg, president and owner of Hyde Park Builders, said he doesn't think a denser project would have led to fewer empty storefronts.
"We've got vacancies right now on one story. I don't see how adding more stories would be any different," he said.
The developer, whose company has been building homes in the Tampa Bay area for 24 years, thinks his center's woes are due simply to the lackluster economy.
"If you look at any commercial property right now, they're suffering," Shimberg said.
And the future of West Bay Village isn't looking up. Last month, a suit was filed to foreclose on a mortgage on the property. It claims the owner, a limited liability company managed by Hyde Park Builders, owes more than $5 million, including interest and fees.
The predicament is pretty basic, Shimberg said.
"You need to fill the center to cover your costs on it," he said. "It's a sign of the economy. You can't point fingers. That's what it is."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.