OLDSMAR — Wanted: One vibrant downtown.
Contact: City of Oldsmar.
Perhaps best known for its enormous flea market, Oldsmar sits at the top of Old Tampa Bay near the Pinellas-Hillsborough county line. On the one hand, it's a convenient location for people who live in Pinellas and work in Tampa or vice versa. On the other hand, Oldsmar's lack of a true downtown gives it the feel of a nowheresville for motorists zipping through at 50 mph on their way to someplace else.
City officials want to change that.
They have hired a major brokerage, CBRE, to sell eight acres next to city hall with the goal of creating a town center. It could have a mix of uses — restaurants, shops, a hotel — and transform the sleepy State Street area into an attractive downtown akin to but larger than those of nearby Safety Harbor and Dunedin.
"We want something very walkable," Mayor Doug Bevis says. "Safety Harbor and Dunedin are beautiful but a Main Street is about all they've got. This should be tied into our boulevard and parks."
Proposals are due April 30 for the town center project, which would be welcomed by 31-year-old newcomer Emelie Dash.
"I personally like the idea of having access to a cute little downtown," says Dash, who with her husband moved from Philadelphia last year. "It's not that Oldsmar is too inconvenient — just about everything we need is a five-minute drive — but it would be fun for the younger crowd to walk downtown and have a beer."
Straddling busy Tampa Road, Oldsmar dates back to 1916 when there were just a few hundred settlers and no bridges connecting Tampa and St. Petersburg. Ransom Eli Olds, inventor of the Oldsmobile, thought the strategically placed area was ripe for development so he bought 37,500 acres and platted a community with wide streets leading to the bay. Lured by the slogan "Oldsmar for Health, Wealth and Happiness," potential home buyers arrived by train from Detroit and by boat from St. Petersburg.
Oldsmar lost some of its allure with the 1924 opening of the Gandy Bridge. Olds, disappointed that the city of 100,000 he envisioned never materialized, began selling off his land. The city was briefly renamed Tampa Shores after one scamster was caught pitching underwater lots, but has been Oldsmar since the late 1930s.
Today, Oldsmar offers an impressive array of amenities for a city of just 14,000. Tampa Road, traveled by 65,000 cars a day, is lined with dozens of restaurants and stores including a Walmart Super Center. Five brand-name hotels have opened since 2001.
Nielsen, the media research firm, and defense contractor Lockheed Martin employ a total of more than 3,500 people. For sports buffs, there's a Zip line, a disc golf park, the Tampa Bay Skating Academy and the Oldsmar BMX Track, which this weekend hosts 1,200 cyclists competing for spots on the 2018 U.S. team for the championships.
"Oldsmar is more than just the Oldsmar flea market,'' says assistant city manager Felicia Donnelly.
But efforts to create a thriving downtown have stumbled along. Council member and former mayor Jerry Beverland, who has held office for a total of 28 years, notes that this is the fourth time the city has tried to make use of the property next to city hall.
"The council, including me, didn't know what the hell they were doing," Beverland says. "We sat there and told (developers) what we wanted and nobody wanted to build what we wanted and we weren't really sure, either."
One developer proposed something so "grandiose it was ridiculous," Beverland says. Another proposal included an ice cream parlor but "you can't expect somebody north of Tampa Road to come get ice cream."
This time, the city worked with the University of South Florida school of architecture to come up with a more realistic plan. Gabby McGee, who at 31 is the youngest council member, envisions a town center with shops, enough residences to support them, a boutique hotel to attract young professionals and offices with shared space.
"The restaurant/eatery component is also key and if you look closely at most of the co-working spaces that have opened in recent years, restaurants and coffee shops quickly followed suit," McGee said in an email.
A second phase would connect downtown to the bayfront R.E. Olds Park. "Residents and visitors alike would be able to work, shop, dine and end their evening with one of our concerts at the park or a sunset from our pier," she says.
Michael Schuh, an acquisition manager for the real estate firm Barclay Group, says the idea of a mixed-used town center appeals to many cities like Oldsmar that are trying to rev up their downtowns. But he is skeptical that the city hall site, a few blocks south of Tampa Road, would get enough traffic to support any retail uses with the possible exception of locally owned stores .
"That's something that area just can't reach," says Schuh, whose firm company has developed shopping plazas for Publix, Target and other major retailers. "You need a corner with lights and access."
Instead, Schuh says, "it would be great apartment site with very minimal retail."
On a recent bright and breezy day, Schuh was dog-walking in Olds Park. The city boasts that it has more parks per square mile than any other municipality in Florida. Three of them are directly on the bay, helping to offset the lack of a scintillating downtown.
Retiree Sharon Garlinski lives in Dunedin but drives to Oldsmar several times a week just to enjoy the parks and walk out on the pier.
"This is very peaceful," she says. "The air feels fresh and clean, no car fumes or anything."
Kortney Taylor grew up in Oldsmar but spent years working as a massage therapist in other parts of the country.
"I didn't want to be that girl that hangs around," she says. But as she got older and had children, she realized she missed Oldsmar's parks and friendly atmosphere. Back home again, she likes the library with its story time for kids , the waterfront carnivals with food trucks and entertainment.
"It's got everything in its own little bubble," Taylor says of the city, ''without feeling like a bubble."
For a waterfront community, Oldsmar remains relatively affordable. It has dozens of new townhomes but except for a few McMansions on Shore Drive, there hasn't been the massive residential redevelopment evident in upscale areas of St. Petersburg and Tampa. Houses in Oldsmar sold last year for a median of $286,5000, almost $30,000 less than in Safety Harbor.
When they moved from Philadelphia, Dash and her husband wanted to be near water and relatively close to Tampa's airport. He often travels in his work for a software company while she and her sister run a non-profit that trains service dogs for veterans in all 50 states. The couple looked in Odessa, Lutz and Clearwater before deciding to buy in Oldsmar.
"We love we can walk from our house to waterfront parks and watch the sunset," Dash says. "For us wanting to be close to the water, this was definitely our most affordable way to do that."
And Lauren Keller, who works for Nielsen, made an offer on a house a few blocks from the water on the same day she saw it, beating out five others.
"Houses move quickly," she says. "This has a small-town feel to it while a lot of Tampa Bay feels a little impersonal."
Although Keller has lived in the bay area since 2013, she never knew Oldsmar had any bayfront parks until she stumbled across them while going to Jack Willie's, a popular Oldsmar bar and grill.
That doesn't surprise Bevis, the mayor. He hopes a lively downtown will draw more visitors deeper into the city.
Says Bevis: "We talk about how many people drive Tampa Road and don't realize that a half a mile off is the bay."'
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727-893-842. Follow @susanskate.