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Stein Mart looks at Clearwater

Stein Mart, a hybrid between a discount retailer and a department store, wants to open a store in the former Maas Brothers building, a move that could bring 80 jobs downtown.

City officials are drawing up an agreement with Stein Mart, a Jacksonville company that has been expanding quickly in the past two years.

If everything goes right, a store could be open this fall, said Susan Datz Edelman, a company spokeswoman.

"Given the right opportunity, we'd love to be in Clearwater," Edelman said.

The company wants Clearwater to hand over the space by May 15, said Peter Gozza, executive director of the city's redevelopment agency.

Stein Mart sells current-season fashions and housewares, presented as they would be in a department store, Edelman said. The store also has a sales staff similar to that in a department store, but Stein Mart prices are 25 percent to 60 percent lower than retail department store prices, she said.

"We don't think there's anything quite like what we are," Edelman said.

If a deal is completed, it would be a shot in the arm to downtown, Gozza said. The area has lacked a large retailer since Maas Brothers closed in September, 1991. The city bought the three-story building that year for $1.9-million, and has tried to lease it, sell it or otherwise fill it ever since, all without success. The building sits vacant and its crumbling facade is an unfortunate focal point on the bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor.

The city would have to rehabilitate the 33-year-old building before it could be leased to Stein Mart, Gozza said. The cost of rehabilitation is not clear, he said. A study last year pegged the cost of fixing the roof, walls and one floor at $2-million.

Stein Mart would lease the 52,000-square-foot ground floor under an arrangement that Gozza discussed after a meeting Monday. The company would pay the city $150,000 per year for the space, plus 2.5 percent of any sales in excess of $4.5-million, under that draft agreement.

Commissioners are scheduled to discuss the arrangement Thursday. Stein Mart also would have to approve the deal; Edelman said she did not know any details of the negotiations.

Commissioners made no comment when told of the possible deal, other than to ask for details of the proposed agreement before Thursday's meeting.

A store in the Maas Brothers building would have a $600,000 payroll, Gozza said. It would provide 40 full-time and 40 part-time jobs, he said.

The city estimates a $1.8-million boost to area businesses if Stein Mart opens, including businesses that would provide services to the retailer and the spinoff effects of more people downtown.

Stein Mart approached the city with the idea in recent months. Gozza said he met with top company officials Jan. 29 to discuss the idea. Some of those officials were former Maas Brothers employees, and always liked the location of the store, Gozza said.

The company has a store in Palm Harbor, at 33591 U.S. Highway 19 N, four miles north of Countryside Mall. There are two in Tampa, one in Britton Plaza and one at Village Center in Carrollwood Village.

Stein Mart has 67 stores in 16 states from Virginia through the Southeast and as far west as Texas. One opened in Ohio last year, the first outside the South and Southeast, she said.

The company sold $38.9-million in stock to the public in 1992, sparking a spurt of growth. In 1993, 15 new Stein Marts opened, the most in any one year. Before that, the most to open in any one year was seven, Edelman said. The company plans to open 10 stores this year, she said.

There are 14 Stein Marts in Florida, including Pensacola, Jacksonville, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

The company's retailing strength would help bring people downtown, said City Commissioner Fred Thomas.

"The concept is very interesting to me," Thomas said. "Stein Mart is a fine tenant."

Thomas has reason for caution in the deal, though. He has pushed the idea of a convention center on two of the three floors _ the basement and ground floor _ in the Maas Brothers building. Commissioners have voted to pursue that idea while trying to find a tenant for the top floor. Thomas' idea had been to open an entertainment center on the top floor, but he said a convention center could be compatible with a Stein Mart.

The difference is that Stein Mart wants the ground floor, leaving only the basement and the top floor for a convention center. They could be connected by special elevators to unite the center, Thomas said.

"It's a little on the edge," Thomas conceded.

If the city agrees to a lease, Stein Mart would probably want to have some say over how the rest of the building is used, Gozza said.

The opening of a Stein Mart would make it easier to attract other tenants to the building and to the entire area, Gozza said.

"When a large retailer selects your site, then a lot of other retailers consider that a reason to look at downtown Clearwater," he said.

Despite his plans for the convention center, Thomas said: "If the whole building is rented out, that wouldn't bother me, either. It would help the taxpayers, although it wouldn't help the restaurant and hotel industry on the beach, which I'm concerned about because they're hurting."

Thomas has asked county tourism officials for $5-million to turn the Maas Brothers building into a convention center. The concept is being studied. Meanwhile, the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce has proposed putting a convention center on Clearwater Beach. Thomas has echoed the concerns of beach residents, who say a center there would clog roads and parking areas.