CLEARWATER — Merchants on Cleveland Street, the heart of the city's sagging downtown, have pegged their hopes for renewal on a revamped Capitol Theatre reopening next week and a new Clearwater Marine Aquarium nearby in a few years.
But another recent downtown unveiling several blocks south — the Church of Scientology's Flag Building — has emptied Cleveland Street of many if not most of the hundreds of uniformed church workers who had for years thronged the street, patronizing its restaurants and shops.
And merchants are feeling the pinch.
"They don't have enough time probably to walk over here and back for lunch," said Robert Henschen, co-owner of Bob and Daughter's Produce.
Sales have fallen off by about half at his store since the Flag Building opened in mid November, said Henschen, mostly because of the sag in church-related traffic.
Other merchants reported similar declines. Tony's Pizza is down about 35 percent. Other businesses such as Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts looked noticeably emptier recently, but their managers didn't respond to requests for comment.
Cafe 421 closed its doors on Nov. 28. The evaporation of Scientology patronage was the final blow, said owner David Cramer.
"Prior to the opening of the Flag Building, we got really busy, we had record numbers. But once they opened up (the Flag Building), the foot traffic changed and it was a big drop off," Cramer said.
The church didn't respond to a request for comment.
City Manager Bill Horne said it's too early to tell if the slump will continue, but that an emptier Cleveland Street was hard to predict.
"I don't think anybody had any idea of what the impact would be once the Flag Building was opened. We knew they had a cafeteria in the basement of that building and we knew that they were going to be feeding their staff," Horne said. "I think the church patronage has moved into a new phase and we'll just have to see what that means."
Cleveland Street is on the cusp of a big turnaround led by the Capitol Theatre and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's plan for a new facility, said Bill Sturtevant, chairman of the Clearwater Downtown Partnership.
"On the surface, it would appear that things are dismal, but I have a very positive take," Sturtevant said. "We know that major players have been looking at downtown in the past year."
In fact, downtown will need more parking to handle the influx of tech workers and the businesses that will spring up to attend to their needs when 247 high-end apartments at Prospect Lake get built, he said.
Merchants aren't upset with the church, said Tony Starova, owner of Tony's Pizza and the adjoining Capitol Beer House. But he hopes that a street with less of a visible Scientology presence might attract customers who previously avoided the area because of all the Scientology workers filling the sidewalks.
"We like every crowd — don't get me wrong. But it's going to be more appealing now to other crowds," Starova said.
City officials have long hoped that the church would tone down its presence along Cleveland Street, even asking church leadership to modify workers' uniforms to make them less intimidating to visitors.
But now that church workers are off the streets, other customers haven't filled the gap, although some hope that the slough will end quickly.
"I think it'll start picking back up. I think it's just a temporary little bump," Henschen said.
Cramer, Cafe 421's owner, doesn't think so. He plans to open a new restaurant in Dunedin, which he says has more downtown parking and less bureaucratic red tape. Struggling to contend with a long-standing perception of a Scientology-dominated downtown put his business in a "Catch-22 situation," Cramer said.
The church presence limited growth potential, but he came to rely on it. And now that it's gone, it was time to move out.
"It's like a beautified ghost town," he said.
Charlie Frago can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.