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Manatee Village's promise remains empty

Store owners at Tarpon Plaza were upset when the Winn-Dixie supermarket moved across Alt. U.S. 19 to a new shopping center last April and kept the lease to its old building, leaving it vacant. "If they want to move, that's fine. Don't kill the shopping center," said Earl Chafee, who runs a Carvel ice cream shop.

"The strip is missed by a lot of people. It looks dead."

But the supermarket, something usually considered vital to the success of a strip shopping center, has not provided the magic touch at the new Manatee Village shopping center, across from Tarpon Plaza.

Of an expected 10 tenants at Manatee Village, only three have leased space and are open. The company that owns the 11-acre shopping center, Australian-based L.J. Hooker Developments, filed for protection from its creditors last August and has put the shopping center up for sale, according to a company spokesman.

The company was partly a victim of the decline of the real-estate market after the 1986 Tax Reform Act, said shopping-center consultant Mike Finstein of the Finstein Consultant Group in Clearwater.

"The new tax laws made it harder to write off the losses to carry other profits," he said. "Every time you build a center with empty space, you compete with a lot of centers. There's too much being built."

But the slow shopping center market has not deterred others from planning centers in Tarpon Springs. Two others are scheduled to open, each with a supermarket and drugstore and room for small businesseses.

Hal MacMinn, who once worked for Hooker's strip center division and now works for another development group, said he was told to charge tenants $13.50 per square foot in rent to keep up with debt payments. Rents in other area stores went for $6 to $8 per square foot, MacMinn said.

"We thought it was a good location," he said. "There wasn't any new, modern shopping available to the citizens of Tarpon Springs. We felt the market wasn't being properly served."

Some tenants, frustrated with construction delays and a state lawsuit over wetlands destruction, pulled out, MacMinn said. Only Walgreen's, Winn-Dixie and Pac n' Send moved in.

Though the anchor stores are busy, Pac n' Send, at 811 S Pinellas Ave., is having problems.

Bob F. Fischer, who runs the store with his parents, has been in business six months at Manatee Village but still has the "grand opening" banner hanging outside his store. On chilly afternoons, he keeps the door open, trying to lure customers.

Fischer said the store rarely is busy because few stores are open.

Across the street, at the older Tarpon Plaza, Chafee expected more business at his ice cream store. He had hoped the center across the street would bring in "cone traffic," or people buying only ice cream cones.

Both Fischer and Chafee are upset; Fischer because he says no one knows he is there; Chafee because Tarpon Plaza's anchor store, Winn-Dixie, moved across the street to Manatee Village.

"I was ecstatic because it was growth. It was going to develop the area," Chafee said he once thought. "(Hooker) screwed up every way they could; now it's just sitting there, and Winn-Dixie's gone."

"A new mall with a brand new Winn-Dixie and a brand new Walgreen's," said Fischer. "We saw the potential. We were under the impression it would grow, and we wanted to grow with them."

That was before Hooker filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in August. A group of creditors in New York must approve any sales of assets or new purchases, said Rene Raymund, asset manager for Hooker International, the real estate arm of Hooker Developments.

The company, which recently put two large department stores up for sale, ran into financial difficulties it attributed to high interest rates in Australia and slow retail sales in the United Sates. The company also borrowed heavily, said Hooker spokesman David McAdam.

The site of Manatee Village was once a factory that manufactured shoelaces, said city engineering technician Richard Hague. Hooker bought the land and began developing the 98,000-square-foot center in 1987.

A year later, construction workers were accused of paving over a wetland and working without some required city permits. They were sued by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, commonly known as Swiftmud.

The company settled the matter by paying $150,000 to Swiftmud. Hooker also plans to turn a local fish hatchery into a 12-acre wooded preserve.

Last April, the city's building department gave certificates of occupancy to the center's two anchor stores, Walgreen's and Winn-Dixie. Some of the eight other stores scheduled to open were a video store, a hobby store and a dry cleaner.

Store owners at the older Tarpon Plaza across the street were upset that the supermarket moved across the street and kept the lease to its old building, leaving it vacant.

Mickey Clerc, a spokesman for Winn-Dixie, said recently that the company had not received a good offer for the space.

"We would be very happy to receive any viable offer on the sublease," he said. "We don't want to increase our costs."

But drugstore owner Larry Rubin said his walk-in business has decreased since Winn-Dixie left.

"It's hurt this mall," Rubin said. "They were the main draw."

Meanwhile, other developers have made plans to open additional shopping centers.

Clearwater-based Paradise Development Group got approval for a 60,000-square-foot shopping center on Gulf Road next to Tarpon Springs High School. It will contain a Food Lion, a Rite-Aid drugstore and about 20 other small businesses.

In November, city commissioners agreed to annex a 7.4-acre parcel on Alt. U.S. 19 at the Pinellas-Pasco border. The Rutenberg Corp. plans to build a shopping center with a Food Lion grocery store on the site. The Pinellas Planning Council already has approved the annexation request, according to city records.

Mike Connor, vice president of Paradise Development, said his shopping center should attract people within a two-mile radius _ far from Manatee Village. Nevertheless, he said, he hopes that center's smaller stores will open soon.

"It's going to bring people to the area," Connor said recently. "If they can pick up some quality tenants, while they're going by, maybe they'll eat at our restaurant."