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John's Pass merchants want a new look

John's Pass Village is one of those tourist draws where you can get a $1.50 ice cream cone or a $6.99 T-shirt. You can rent a watercraft or take half-day boat trips into the Gulf of Mexico or to a number of nearby barrier islands. Restaurants and gift shops abound.

It's kind of quaint, but a little frayed, some village business owners say. Though visitors can buy all the postcards, suntan oil and hot dogs they could want, something is missing.

It's the upscale shopping, the attractions and the events that draw local residents and keep them coming back.

"We wanted to be, and still want to be, a charming little fishing village that's people-friendly," said Joanne Lloyd, who owns East End Coffee House and Gifts. "We've ended up this tacky T-shirt place, and that has to be changed."

"It's like a little place in our city that nobody really cares (about) or really loves," village business owner Pat Shontz recently told the Madeira Beach City Commission. "That's a shame because it's a showcase for our city; it's a showcase for our county."

Last year, a group of merchants decided to try to change the direction they thought the village was headed. First, they contacted a high-priced Miami architectural firm to get some opinions on ways the village could be more attractive and pedestrian-friendly. A full study would have cost tens of thousands of dollars, Lloyd said.

Enter the local chapter of Service Corps of Retired Executives, a non-profit arm of the Small Business Administration.

"A few farsighted business owners asked us to come in and give some independent views, or second opinions and to be very frank about what we thought was the future of John's Pass," corps volunteer John C. Botts told Madeira Beach commissioners.

One of its first recommendations was for the village to establish a business and property owners organization, which led to the birth of the Cooperative Development Alliance. Of the 106 businesses in the village, half are now members.

The next step was for the village to create a master plan. The alliance has since contacted the University of Florida, which has promised to send an architectural graduate student to help write and design the master plan, Lloyd said.

So armed, several group members approached Madeira Beach commissioners this month with a proposition.

Shontz, owner of the Village Landing Family Restaurant and president of the alliance, laid out some of the problems, as she sees them.

The village is in "dire need" of a parking garage and beautification, Shontz said. Traffic flow is out of whack and the village isn't pedestrian-friendly.

Artist Rob Goins prepared a sketch, for the Cooperative Development Alliance, illustrating how one village beachwear business could be made to better fit in with the overall theme of John's Pass. The village, he told commissioners, "does look like a T-shirt and trinket mecca."

As visitors move deeper into the village, a wider variety of shops are available, he said. "But this is your first impression. It's meant to be a model of a fishing village, but now it's got bits of Coney Island, of Myrtle Beach, of Taiwan," he said.

Goins suggested better landscaping, picket fences and new zoning laws that would require that signs conform to a uniform code. "Do away with the visual clutter," he said. "It may just be cosmetic, but it sets the atmosphere."

SCORE came up with a list of objectives for the village. They include more attractions and facilities for year-round residents, more upscale shopping to draw repeat shoppers, a welcome and hospitality point where information can be disseminated and events organized, and a way to revive the history of John's Pass.

Not everyone is pleased with the ideas. Erny Lifland, who sells T-shirts, inflatable beach gear and other items at his Toys N Togs shop, said one part of the plan _ to require shopkeepers to bring their goods in from the sidewalk _ would kill one-third of his business.

City ordinance bans sidewalk displays unless they are on private property, he said. Finding a bigger shop isn't an option, he said, because retail space in the village is expensive and rarely available.

Lifland, who said he is a member of the alliance and an original member of the group that organizes the village's annual seafood festival, suggested that money intended for beautification could be better spent on advertising.

Some nearby merchants agree.

"The types of shops here attract tourists, not locals," said retailer Suzette Previch, whose father has owned Captain's Treasure gift shop on the northern end of the village for 11 years. "I don't think beautifying the way John's Pass looks is going to improve the businesses. You need to beautify Florida."

A requirement to remove the shop's outdoor tables wouldn't harm her family's business, she said. "We'd just bring them inside."

Previch also would loosen the area's strictly enforced three-hour parking limit. "These people come down here to shop. They don't come down here to get a ticket," she said, adding that she got a parking ticket last week.

Merchants on the south side of the village, near the wharf, say zoning changes would help business.

"It's not that we don't want the T-shirt places, because people want those, but they don't have to be out on the sidewalk. What we need here are a different set of codes. Our problems are unique to us," coffee shop owner Lloyd said.

Zoning changes also could affect things like the hours and locations that delivery trucks could stop. Lloyd would like to see 128th Avenue closed off to vehicles.

"You're on the water," Lloyd said. "Why would you want to dodge cars?"

To get the zoning changes, the village most likely would have to be designated as a district distinct from the rest of the city. The City Commission appears willing to listen.

"I don't think there's anyone on this board who would not agree that we should participate. The question we have is, what's the dimension of this participation? How do we fit in the city?" asked Mayor Tom De Cesare at the workshop meeting.

"For us to have an outstanding village, it's going to cost a little bit of money," alliance president Shontz said. "I want more than your support and loving care of the village. We want a little money."

First, come up with a game plan, De Cesare told her. Meanwhile, the City Commission has appointed an ad hoc committee to study the village.

At its regular meeting Tuesday, Commissioners John Wolbert and Arnold Alloway were appointed to the committee. The other members are Shontz, Lloyd and restaurant owner Art Broderick, who are members of John's Pass Cooperative Development Alliance; Debra Spaeth, chairwoman of the city's planning commission; and Lois McCafferty, a neighborhood resident.

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