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Downtown tries to bridge gap

While drivers along Gulf Boulevard are stuck in traffic, businesses here are longing for it.

The closing of the Treasure Island Causeway created a traffic nightmare for those who used it to access Pinellas County's beach communities. That same closure is quashing business between the causeway and Gulf Boulevard, which is downtown Treasure Island.

"Business is down about 40 percent," said Larry Hoffman, president of the Treasure Island Chamber of Commerce, whose downtown office looks out onto an empty parking lot along 107th Avenue. "There's a big population of people just on the other side of the bridge that used to come over. Now it's a 20-minute ride all the way around."

With traffic detoured south to Corey Causeway in St. Pete Beach - or north to Madeira Beach's Tom Stuart Causeway via the construction-choked John's Pass bridge - residents of western St. Petersburg have lost their zeal to zip onto the beach, business owners say.

So the chamber has started a downtown market to enhance the appeal of a tough commute.

"The first day after the bridge closed, I had seven customers all day," said Rich Kitson of Rich's Little Doghouse, once a favorite of the St. Petersburg lunch crowd. He said the bridge's partial closures in the past several months would hurt his business, but he'd get it back the next day when the bridge reopened. "Now, I can sit out here for a half an hour and not see a car go by."

The same effect befalls those with nighttime businesses. Rick Taylor of Ricky T's Beach Bar said closing the bridge at the beginning of January gave him the worst Super Bowl business he has had in 13 years. And he's not on 107th Avenue, but around the corner on Gulf Boulevard.

"By 10 at night, I'm pretty much at zero," he said. "People are not going to get off work and fight traffic to come here."

Taylor is still getting some business from tourists, so he said he'll be able to keep his staff in advance of busier days like St. Patrick's Day and Memorial Day weekend. He said he may use his sign as a countdown until the bridge reopens, which may happen as early as June.

"It does have a big impact on those businesses downtown," said City Manager Ralph Stone.

The first Saturday Market closed off 107th Avenue last week from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The effort showed promise with about 40 vendors and brisk attendance.

"I hope people support that," said Corky Stern of Johnny Pastrami's, another popular lunch spot. "I'm glad to see the city and chamber come together and make that happen."

The market along 107th Avenue features produce and crafts, but not prepared foods in the hopes that visitors will patronize the adjacent cafes and restaurants.

Stern said his business is steady from this time last year, but he had been seeing year-after-year gains. He also said the bridge is only partly to blame; the rest comes from fewer tourists after several hotels were torn down. Taylor agreed, saying the loss of hundreds of hotel rooms over the last couple of years could cause some small businesses to close altogether.

The bridge closing seems to have helped some businesses. Traffic has increased going south, so St. Pete Beach merchants are seeing a pickup, but a replacement effect also helps out some in Treasure Island.

"This has been good for me," said Bassam Musa, the manager of downtown's Bristol Cleaners. He said he has seen his business rise 30 to 35 percent because during the commute customers find themselves detoured from their usual cleaners along Central Avenue. Bristol's location, therefore, gets more traffic than before, although Musa enhances that by offering first-time customers a discount. "My goal is for them to keep coming back."

The Saturday Market will continue until the bridge reopens and will add a monthly extended period, until dusk, to increase entertainment. In the meantime, some business people just have to grin and bear it.

"My wife is going through two books a week," Kitson said of the idle time at the Doghouse, "but that doesn't pay the bills."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sppimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.

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