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LONG WAIT ON PATRICIA AVENUE

Shops that lost customers when Nielsen relocated to Oldsmar in 2005 are trying not to lose faith in a big developer.

Over the years, Nielsen Media Research employees helped keep afloat the small businesses surrounding their Patricia Avenue campus.

They bought strawberries at Damir Hercinovic's produce stand, got haircuts at Gregg Wykoff's shop and ate pizza at Umberto's of Long Island restaurant.

But in 2005, the last of the research company's 1,600 employees left Patricia Avenue for a new building in Oldsmar.

Three years later, no one has replaced them. The 17-acre campus at 375 Patricia Ave., which was bought by city-courted developer Grady Pridgen in 2005, remains empty.

"It's had a devastating effect," said Wykoff, owner of Yesterday's Family Hair Care at 120 Patricia Ave., which has shrunk from three full-time employees to two. "It was like the flagship for Patricia Avenue."

Wykoff estimates 20 percent of his business went with Nielsen to Oldsmar. He said the city hasn't done enough to promote the site, which he thinks would be perfect for a high-tech company.

Other business owners report a similar decrease in customers.

At lunchtime, a flood of people used to walk from the Nielsen site to area businesses, said Paul Warth, owner of Paul Warth's Flooring America at 100 Patricia Ave. He said he received business from about five Nielsen employees every month.

The once-bustling Umberto's of Long Island restaurant sat empty during a recent lunch hour.

While the dinner crowd has stayed consistent, restaurant owners Pat and Tony Illiano said the lunch crowd has suffered by 80 percent since Nielsen left.

Business has slowed so much that on weekends, the restaurant pushed back its opening from noon to 4 p.m. They had to lay off a waiter.

"Sometimes I wonder if it's really worth it to be open," Pat Illiano said.

Two months ago, the Illiano brothers gathered local merchants at their restaurant to meet with a Pridgen representative.

The developer's representatives have also met with neighboring residents to find out what they want to see at the site, according to Pridgen spokeswoman Rebecca Bray.

Pridgen is proposing a mixed-use development and has acquired some adjoining property, including 5.5 acres at 1060 Scotsdale St. and a little more than an acre at 407 Patricia Ave. According to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser's Web site, Pridgen also owns two nearby lots at 919 and 925 Cedarwood Ave. However, he hasn't submitted any site plans to the city.

Bray couldn't say when the project will get moving, saying the time line depends on the results of the meetings and the market.

In the meantime, the city is planning to study the infrastructure, land use, streetscape and aesthetic needs of various corridors, including Patricia Avenue, said City Manager Robert DiSpirito.

Other areas to be studied are the Dunedin Causeway and the strip of road leading from Main Street to the marina.

While waiting for the former Nielsen site to be developed, City Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said she hopes the city can improve Patricia Avenue in minor ways such as extra code enforcement and decorative newspaper boxes until a more extensive corridor study is complete.

"I wish it could be much sooner," Bujalski said. "You try telling a business you need to wait six months to a year to see improvements on a road."

Until then, Hercinovic, the owner of Dunedin Produce, will continue to use the Nielsen site's empty parking lot to teach his daughter how to drive.

He estimates he lost 30 to 40 percent of his business when Nielsen left. Times are scarier now with talks of a recession. He said he hopes to see a business move in that will bring a lot of people back to the street.

"Right now," Hercinovic said, "there's not much happening on Patricia."

Tamara El-Khoury can be reached at tel-khoury@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4181.

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