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His view of downtown: crowds passing by

Bernard Henry has a problem:

He sells women's dresses and shoes out of a storefront on a busy street in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg.

Restaurants across the street and around the corners attract yuppies and shoppers from the offices and stores nearby; people walk past his display window and go into the post office across the street; city buses drop thousands of potential customers off at the park next door.

A steady stream of pedestrians walk past his store.

And that's the problem.

Too few of them come in. Too many of those who do get in the door but immediately turn around and walk out.

It's not that his merchandise is undesirable. Most of the customers he hoped to gain by moving seven blocks from his old location don't bother to look at his wares.

"I can't even get them in the door," Henry lamented. "I may have to have another grand opening."

He opened the store at 37 Fourth St. N three months ago. For three years, his Ruby's Shoes and Dresses was at 650 Central Ave., where far fewer eyes passed his store. He thought the move would throw him into the line of vision of more people and that a few more would stop to shop, or at least browse.

But Henry's problem _ problems _ moved with him.

He was hoping his customer base would be women from their mid-20s to mid-40s, but it hasn't turned out that way. "The majority of my customers have been older black ladies. I was hoping for younger women, black and white."

Henry thinks the problem is that he is a young, black man, a fearsome combination of late. St. Petersburg, especially its downtown, is white.

Most downtowns are, said Richard Bradley, an expert who has been looking at them for 10 years.

Bradley, who heads the International Downtown Association, said St. Petersburg is more homogenous than most.

He met Friday with members of several downtown marketing and development groups, along with merchants and practically anyone else interested in the area, in a visioning retreat. The purpose was to come to agreement on where downtown should be going and what it needs to do to get there.

They met on the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida, and the school's Julie Gillespie estimated that about 100 people attended.

They were all white.

There was no effort to exclude anyone from the event, said Martin Normile, executive vice president of St. Petersburg Progress, one of the coordinators. A story in the Times announced the meeting and said it would be open to anyone who wanted to attend.

Henry did not attend. He said he was not aware of the session but added that he probably could not have gone because he would have been forced to close his shop.

It is unclear, even to the man who ran the meeting, what Henry might have gotten from it. But it is clear that without his presence _ or some of the other black merchants in the broadly defined downtown area _ their problems were not addressed.

More importantly, Henry's contribution to the solution was not made. And according to Bradley, there is more at stake than the success of Ruby's Shoes and Dresses. The success of downtown itself depends on how well it becomes more integrated and inclusive.

"Downtown should be a place where the community comes together and works together," he said. "A lot of minority groups generally don't look to downtown; they look generally to their own community."

St. Petersburg, like many cities, has to work to integrate minorities into its downtown community. Bradley said a key question groups such as the downtown boosters he met with should ask is: "What needs to be done to make the African-American community more comfortable in coming downtown? It shouldn't be taken for granted that everything you're doing tries to make it comfortable for everyone. It's essential that downtown be something for everybody."

For one 38-year-old black man who runs a store for women, that something could be as simple as a few more customers who don't do an about-face when they open his door and see him.