NEW PORT RICHEY
Market Off Main, a quaint restaurant and fresh market, nestled on the banks of the Pithlachascotee River, was a favorite spot for people hankering for locally grown vegetables and comfort food offerings.
But there was always a feeling of being on the outskirts of downtown for business partners Rose Mohr, 68, and Jerry Kuss, 73. So when the opportunity came to relocate to the heart of downtown, they made the leap, and quietly moved their operation over Labor Day weekend to a space that once housed the Cafe Grand.
"I always admired the building from the outside and we really liked the dynamics of the city," Mohr said, adding that the inside decor, with white wainscoting and warm yellow walls, is equally appealing.
The newly named, Rose's Bistro Off Main has a few more employees and an expanded menu. And while there have been hiccups, business has been brisk, especially during the recent Cotee River Bike Fest and Autumn Art Walk.
"We are in the hub of it all now," Mohr said, with a smile. "Anytime there's something going on, it happens right here."
As once empty storefronts are filling up, it looks like there's more to come.
New Port Richey, with its historic downtown and riverfront park, has long been thought of as a city of unrealized potential.
"This could be like (downtown) Dunedin or Safety Harbor," said Eric Simon, 71, while gathering for coffee and conversation at Rose's Bistro with regulars, John Dato, 58, Sal Conigliaro, 81, Ed Triglia, 75, and Tony Roberts, 61.
"It's been on the verge for 25 years," said Roberts. "I'd love to see it thrive, but the economy still isn't that good. I'm skeptical."
There have been losses. Mezzaluna and Vincenzo's restaurants and the Downtown New Port Richey Art Gallery were shuttered this year.
But for some, the opening of Rose's Bistro, at 6238 Grand Blvd., signals a hopeful resurgence.
Cindy Cadle, a member of the city's environmental committee has been heartened by a flourishing urban garden movement as well as the new businesses opening on the streets where her husband, dentist Donald Cadle, hangs his shingle.
"I definitely do feel an optimism," said Cadle, 59, while selling organic vegetables at the Tasty Tuesdays fresh market at the New Port Richey Public Library. "I've always seen this as the little town that could.''
According to Economic Development Director, Mario Iezzoni 23 new businesses have cropped up in the last six months, and occupancy has risen from 50 to 90 percent.
Newer enterprises include Johnny Grits Restaurant, Ottaway's Parkside Ice Cream Parlor, Maharajh Acupuncture, Tampa Bay Multimedia Company, Heron Publishing, Jimmy Ferraro's Studio Theatre, Dulcet Restaurant and Lounge and Soulshine Family Arts Center, a second-story venture on Grand Boulevard, taken on by Marcus and Stephanie Carr. It offers craft nights, kids art classes, hoop classes and evening yoga. Up and coming — White Heron Tea and Gifts, Beef 'O'Brady's, Netta's Restaurant and yet-to-be-named coffee and cupcake shops.
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"I feel like there's already a lot going on here," said Marcus Carr, 24. "There's a really great Florida culture that New Port Richey embraces. The waterways. The park. It's more of a local scene."
"We want to be a part of this community," said his wife, Stephanie, 27. "People are craving something here."
Iezzoni, 59, who resides in Gulf Harbors with his wife, Mary Ann, has laid out the welcome mat.
He has an idea of the challenges, having cut his chops managing a white water rafting company in Pennsylvania, as a CPA and as an adjunct in small business development at the University of South Florida.
"We need to let people know we are open for business," he said.
His tactic is to streamline a cumbersome licensing process and lure savvy business people, most recently wooing a gondolier from Rhode Island to check out the Pithlachascotee River as a possible winter set up.
Pet projects include a business incubator for startups that offers low overhead, and a matching grant program for established or relocating businesses that perk up their properties in downtown, along the U.S. 19 corridor and the Marine District.
An added caveat, Iezzoni points out, are rental rates that are less pricey than comparative cities to the south.
"The owners of Dulcet (restaurant) saw that early on," he said. "They put $800,000 into the building and hired 30 employees. They leased the pocket park behind the restaurant. They added a Sunday morning brunch that is successful."
"It's been a real confidence builder," he said, adding that citizens who once called to complain about people loitering on that corner now see a red carpet laid out on the street.
A linchpin is the historical Hacienda Hotel, built in the 1920s heydays when silent movie stars and other notables walked the streets. The city purchased the landmark property in 2004. Ten years later, the state Legislature allocated $1 million for renovations. The Hacienda should open within three years as a boutique hotel that will be abutted by a newly beautified, Sims Park.
After building confidence, the next stage is building a sustainable customer base, Iezzoni said.
Events such as Chasco Fiesta and Cotee River Bike Fest bring in thousands of visitors who spend a lot of money, but those are transitory draws.
"Smaller businesses have to have relational buyers — people who continue to patronize them," said Iezzoni, pointing to studies that show that adding more residential properties is essential in a "successful doorstep downtown."
The revival of the troubled Main Street Landing project, that has sat empty for 10 years, might be a start, adding up to 72 residential and a possible 14 commercial units on the first floor, Iezzoni said.
It's a hopeful outlook, but the downtown that he envisions in five years looks even better.
"I see New Port Richey as a beautiful old Florida town with affordable properties, diverse restaurants and art galleries," he said. "I see the Hacienda Hotel open and at least 300 new residential units. I see the existing buildings downtown with second and third stories on top of them. I really feel that in five years you are going to find a town that has defined itself in a different way."
Contact Michele Miller at email@example.com or (727) 869-6251. Follow @MicheleMiller52.