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Keene Plaza quiet without its anchor

It's easy to count the cars in the parking lot. A few loyal customers straggle in and out. Transients roam about at night.

That is any given day at Keene Plaza shopping center, the once vibrant hub where one could shop for groceries and go for Chinese food while having a dress altered.

The place has gone down, say those who work at the center, Keene Road and East Bay Drive. They say that when a Winn-Dixie store left in 1995, it took the livelihood of Keene Plaza along with it.

"The place is so empty, it's pretty much run down," said Ken Furman, manager of the Barbers at Keene. "It's becoming an eyesore."

No one has taken Winn-Dixie's place. Signs and empty suites tell of bygone businesses: Catherine's Fashions, Famous Door Chinese Buffet, Special Effects Salon, American Publishers Network.

Leasing officials say a turnaround is soon to come, but business owners and workers are skeptical. They say patronage is down and their frustrations are up.

Furman's barbershop has been here about 20 years. Longevity was apparently not enough to hold at least 20 percent of its customers after Winn-Dixie died, Furman said.

Kelley Kirouac, manager of Suncoast Video, said she cut back on business hours. "It's just so quiet that there's no real reason to open up early and stay open late."

"Business is not good at all," said Kevin Ismaili, who owns Kevin's Kitchen.

The restaurant has been here for six years, Ismaili said. Customers still come during the day, but at night "they are scared to come," he said. "It's like dead plaza."

The big names are seemingly more fortunate. Small circles of cars sit outside Eckerd Drugs, McDonald's restaurant and a Dollar General store.

Steve Fekete, manager for Radio Shack, said his store has not been hit hard by Winn-Dixie's exit, although business could be better.

"We're still going to draw our local clientele in," Fekete said. "When Winn-Dixie was here, you did have a lot of casual traffic and that gives you more opportunity to extend your clientele base. We don't have that clientele anymore."

Lynne Deal, who owns the Corner Bar & Grill, moved into the plaza last year, after Winn-Dixie left. Her place is doing fine, Deal said. "Liquor always sells."

The property appraiser's office assesses Keene Plaza at $2.5-million. Clearwater Partners owns it, but officials could not be reached for comment. Brandywine Real Estate Management Services Corp. manages and leases it.

Jack Russo, a manager for Brandywine at its headquarters in Philadelphia, said the company is working to revive Keene and is talking with several potential tenants, including an anchor. He said that it would be premature to name those tenants, but that he would be able to be more specific in coming weeks.

"To replace a major tenant, it takes time," Russo said.

Brandywine officials have talked with disgruntled business owners, Russo said. "This is what happens when an anchor moves out."

Winn-Dixie closed its Keene Plaza store in 1995, saying the location was not profitable. The store's 29,000 square feet paled in comparison with the 60,000-square-foot stores that were opening nearby. There was no room for a full-service photo department or a flower shop common in grocery stores today.

The decline in business is not the only concern for those working in businesses here. Most close by 7 or 8 p.m. Since activity has decreased, some say, late-night vagrants are on the rise and gang-related graffiti have been spray-painted on the building.

With so few people around, Kirouac said, security concerns were a factor in shortening hours at Suncoast Video, Kirouac said. The store closes at 9 p.m., except Fridays and Saturdays, when it closes at 10 p.m.

Largo Sgt. Steve Field said officers who patrol that area have talked several times in the past year with store workers concerned about vagrants. More graffiti have appeared in the past several months, but the area is not considered a high crime area compared with other parts of the city, Field said.

Faithfuls still come to Keene Plaza.

Ken Marshall waited on a recent day to get his hair cut at Furman's shop. Marshall, from England, lives in the nearby Whispering Pines Mobile Home Park during the winter. For the past six winters, he has gotten his hair cut here. When Winn-Dixie was around, he would buy his groceries, stop in at the Dollar General, then go for a haircut.

"It was convenient," Marshall said. He does his shopping elsewhere now but still comes here for the haircut.