NORTH TAMPA — Glass and gravel on a vacant lot at a corner of 40th and Yukon streets are all that's left of Harry Jagmohan's dream. He uprooted his wife and teenage son from New York to be near family in 2003. In the process, he bought the lease on a convenience store — something he could pass down to his son. But one year after Jagmohan was up and running, Tampa officials told him his business was too close to the street and would need to be razed for a scheduled road project. "I was in complete shock," Jagmohan said. "It was unfair because I did not know that when I signed the lease." Construction crews have been demolishing buildings as the city pushes forward — and Jagmohan's isn't the only independent business being left behind. City officials say Temple Crest residents had been requesting the widening of 40th Street for nearly 40 years. The project didn't get legs until Mayor Pam Iorio took office five years ago and made 40th Street a priority.
Fortieth Street leads visitors coming from Interstate 4 to Busch Gardens and the University of South Florida.
"It was a two-lane, unlit, curvy road with no drainage,'' said Jean Dorzback, the city's 40th Street project manager. "It certainly will be a better corridor to attractions in the area and a better road for residents."
Peppered with orange construction signs, the stretch of road from Hillsborough Avenue to Fowler Avenue looks like a work in progress. The two-lane portions are bumpy with faded lines. Some shopping centers have crumbling facades and some have revamped signs. The finished portions of the five-phase project are pristine four-lane roads with landscaping and new traffic-control signs.
But as Jagmohan sees it, the plan left no room for independent businesses.
"After we closed, a lot of the people who live in the apartments over there moved because there was no place nearby to get food," he said.
Business owners miss the conveniences, too.
"When we needed ice or something else little, we used to be able to run over there and get what we needed," said Reginald Oliver, co-owner of Reggie and Jay's Soul Food.
Nothing comes easy
Jagmohan is no stranger to upheaval. Born in Guyana, he moved with his family to New York in 1980 in the wake of the Jonestown massacre.
He studied real state at a technical school. With help from family and friends, he bought his first building to rent.
In 2002, while trying to collect from a delinquent tenant, Jagmohan was stabbed eight times in the abdomen before falling down the stairs.
"He even stabbed me in the liver," he said.
Now disabled, he cannot take a job that requires heavy lifting.
The store seemed like a great business venture — until the city came knocking. Jagmohan hired David Caldevilla, an attorney who has extensive experience dealing with eminent domain cases.
Jagmohan received $175,000 — $75,000 less than he has borrowed from family members.
Feeling the pain
And it seems that everyone is losing money.
Oliver blames the road project, the rising price of gas and the downturn of the economy.
"Business is really slow," Oliver said. "Much slower than when we first moved here about 18 months ago."
He and his neighbors in the Bella Plaza shopping center may be taking a few more hits in the future. The eight-store center, which has only three tenants today, must relocate its parking lot or rebuild farther from the road to fit on its smaller property.
"The owner told us at the most we'd only be closed for three months or so if he rebuilt the center," said Valerie Bass, owner of Valerie's Accessories.
"If he does, we'll just have to find something else to do in the meantime to stay afloat."
Dorzback acknowledged that some businesses will be casualties to the road's expansion.
"There is always a price to pay with a project this scale," she said. But "there is a lot of opportunity for the community, which I know has the desire to attract a lot of smaller scale businesses that will cover a lot of their needs."
A different look
Temple Crest is a mixed community of middle- and working-class families, with a few apartment complexes filled with students and low-income families.
Terry Neal, the Civic Association president, said that there has been no big rallying cry to save the businesses that have been demolished.
"There hasn't really been too much of anything about the businesses that are already gone," Neal said. "But one concern we have had is that the city is not zoning any of the property until all of it is purchased — which makes it difficult for some businesses to start their rebuild."
Mainstays like the 40th Street Fish Market are in limbo until all the other deals are closed, Neal explained.
But overall, he said, many homeowners are responding positively to the road improvements.
"We're trying to make it a centerpiece like Temple Terrace's downtown redevelopment," he said.
That leaves Jagmohan falling back on his former profession: real estate management. He owns several houses in the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard area that he rents. But he says the job wears on him. There are lulls in activity.
"In the store, you would work 12 or 13 hours and there was always something to do," he said.
He misses his neighbors and his customers.
"It's a shame because now they have to travel much farther for the small things," he said. "In these times, that can be a serious problem for some."
Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5313.