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Business survival is hit or miss

The strip malls of North Dale Mabry Highway house a paradox. Longtime businesses thrive next to empty spaces. One restaurant changes names three times in a year, while another quietly maintains a steady clientele. A block's worth of strip malls display a row of "For Lease" signs, while yet another new center gets its last landscaping touches before the November opening.

That is business, Carrollwood style.

This quintessential American suburb, with an estimated $1.47-billion in spending muscle and 71,000 cars driving its main thoroughfare each day, is a natural attraction for businesses ranging from large banks to tiny nail sculpting boutiques. But leasing figures tell a different story, with high amounts of unleased retail and office space compared with the rest of Hillsborough County.

"I think the small-business owners come in and say, "Obviously, I see the Mercedes, I see the BMWs, I see all this affluence. Some of it's got to rub off on me,' " said Marshall Smith, a local businessman and former director of the Carrollwood Area Business Association.

Smith has firsthand knowledge of the fickle Carrollwood-area market. He and his wife opened a print shop on North Dale Mabry Highway in 1981 and closed it within six months.

Times were tough economically, he said, and they made the classic business mistakes.

"We were way undercapitalized," said Smith, who runs a successful marketing and public relations company and gives survival seminars to small businesses. "And we really didn't like that business."

The Smiths' short-term experience isn't unusual. On Dale Mabry Highway, the community's main thoroughfare, it's not uncommon for businesses to open and close in a matter of months.

"I've had a lot of local businesses declare bankruptcy on me before I could collect my money," said Chuck McManus, who has owned Carrollwood Copy and Printing for nine years. "You really don't know if they're going to be there 60 days down the road."

According to the Maddux Report, which charts bay-area business trends, the Carrollwood area has a 15.5-percent retail space vacancy rate, compared to 10 percent countywide. The area has a 23.5 percent office space vacancy rate compared to 20.4 percent countywide.

Experts say several factors have created the business climate here: an overbuilt market, badly planned centers and poor marketing studies.

"It happens because of the tremendous growth of the early 1980s," said Bill Manck, director of the Small Business Development Center at the University of South Florida. "Financial assistance was readily available then, so consequently, Dale Mabry has become the longest parking lot in the state."

David Conn, broker salesman for Coldwell Banker commercial division, points to bad planning. "The problem with Carrollwood is there's been a lot of strip centers poorly conceived to begin with," he said. "Maybe they're lacking anchor tenants, maybe the access wasn't what it should be."

To fight back and attract tenants, centers have offered covered parking spaces for tenants, gyms in office buildings and other amenities. At Cypress Point Office Park, office spaces have been divided up to attract smaller tenants.

"You have to get creative in your leasing," said Bill Ante of Allen Morris Company, which owns the building.

Still, the larger anchor tenants, such as the array of grocery stores that seem to square off at each intersection, traditionally have survived on Dale Mabry Highway. Some small businesses also have managed to carve a comfortable niche. Specialized shops give the six-lane strip an entrepreneurial flavor.

"In Carrollwood, you do something really different, like open up a shop that specializes in rose petals, or a little fondue place," Smith said. "I'm always amazed they can survive in such a narrow niche. I'm still stunned a person can survive on fingernails."

Angie Austrino, who opened Ahjaleah's European Boutique five years ago when she tired of her corporate job, said she looked countywide before choosing Carrollwood. "I wouldn't be anywhere else but Dale Mabry," she said. "It's been a challenge, but the market is definitely here."

"I'm convinced that success comes from having enough capital to get you through the hills and valleys," said Debbra Gottfried, manager of Rugs of the World, in business for five years.

Business leaders remain upbeat about the area's future despite expert's predictions of a gloomy economy. Road improvements prevent them from being landlocked, and the Northwest Expressway will bring more traffic their way.

"I think the more obvious it gets you can get in and out of this area, the more people will come here," said Don Coryell, director of the Carrollwood Area Business Association.

Conn of Coldwell Banker agreed. "I think there's still a demand for retail in Carrollwood," he said. "I think we've seen the bottom of the market."

Despite the vacancies, the market still is growing. Across the street from the newest, not-yet-opened Wal-Mart center at Ehrlich Road and Dale Mabry Highway, workers already are turning dirt for another 315,0000-square-foot spending mecca.

"I still see new shopping centers going up," Manck said, "to my constant amazement."

Population 71,020

Households 26,561

Median household

income $42,828

Households earning

$0 to $24,999 5,513


Households earning

$25,000 or $49,999 10,692


Households earning

$50,000 or more 10,356


Total buying power $1.47-billion

Total retail sales $309-million

Office space vacancy

(Northwest) 23.5%

Office space vacancy

(Hillsborough) 20.4%

Retail space vacancy

(Northwest) 15.5%

Retail space vacancy

(Hillsborough) 10.0%

Sources: Times Publishing Co. Research Department, Maddux Report