CLEARWATER — When Darina and Zdravko Talanga were searching for a place to open their first full-service restaurant, they wanted to be somewhere with action.
They chose Cleveland Street to be a part of what they see as early signs of a downtown revival. In mid-August, they took over a building at 1343 Cleveland St. that had been vacant for more than a year and opened their Croatian fine dining De Lukas Restaurant and Bar.
“We’ve been in Pinellas County 22 years and we’ve seen a lot of improvements in the last few years in downtown Clearwater,” Darina Talanga said. “Businesses are coming.”
Downtown Clearwater is still battling persistent vacancies and the uncertainty around what’s in store for dozens of properties purchased by limited liability companies tied to the Church of Scientology in the last four years. But increasing bright spots are bringing hope to business owners and local officials, who are counting on a renaissance to follow major city investments.
At least 11 businesses have launched since January, or are planning to open by the end of 2021, in downtown. Many openings overlapped with the August groundbreaking of Imagine Clearwater, an $84 million rebuild of the city-owned downtown waterfront which will bring an outdoor amphitheater, gardens, bluff walk and plaza to the barren park. Construction is expected to be completed in mid-2023.
“We know that it’s hard to believe until you actually see construction happening,” said Amanda Thompson, director of the community redevelopment agency. “They can see the City Council has approved funding, they can see construction, and now is the time to get in and build on that momentum.”
Longtime business owners who have kept faith in the area are also working to bring more consistent activity. Last year, the Downtown Clearwater Merchants Association rebranded a portion of Cleveland Street near the waterfront as The District to draw attention to the cluster of restaurants, bars and shops that has sprouted over the last few years. And in July the City Council agreed to indefinitely close the 400 and 500 blocks of Cleveland to vehicle traffic, turning an accommodation officials made for outdoor dining during the coronavirus pandemic into a permanent pedestrian mall.
The increase in regular events downtown, like live music and Sip & Strolls, and the hope for the success of Imagine Clearwater is what helped convince Christine Knox to open a Pilates studio on Cleveland Street in January.
“With that new park renovation, I’m hoping that brings more people down here because that’s one of the things we’ve always struggled with,” Knox said. “Hopefully that will generate stores and products for people to buy like Dunedin, Safety Harbor, St. Petersburg. Their downtowns all have actual stores where people can buy things and walk around.”
The city has for years struggled to attract investors to community redevelopment agency-owned properties downtown. But in the last year, that trend is also changing. Three of four city redevelopment properties put out to bid are now under development agreements for housing projects.
In the most recent deal approved in September, the city entered into an agreement for a Tampa-based development group to build 35 market rate apartments, 11,000 square feet of office space and a brewery at the city-owned property at 115 South Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.
“My step one was focus on what’s in our control and be an example for what we want to see so we can ask other people to be accountable,” Thompson said.
However, downtown Clearwater is still dealing with unknown variables that don’t exist in surrounding downtowns. Between 2017 and 2019, limited liability companies tied to Scientology bought 100 properties within walking distance of the downtown waterfront. The companies paid a combined $103 million, almost all in cash. But today, the companies have kept 23 of the storefronts and buildings vacant and 30 lots undeveloped after purchasing them.
Of the 11 new businesses opening this year, five are renting storefronts in buildings bought by members of Scientology since 2017.
Taver Mceachron said he and his wife Diandra chose downtown Clearwater to open their first restaurant in Florida because of the void they saw in the market for Caribbean food. He said he hopes that with the proximity to Clearwater Beach and the tourists in search of authentic cuisine, he hopes he can build on the energy brewing downtown. The restaurant the couple is launching, Jamaica Vybz Grille, is slated to open at 623 Cleveland St. later this month.
“I just want to bring that vibe to the area,” Mceachron said.
New businesses in downtown Clearwater
De Lukas Restaurant and Bar, 1343 Cleveland St., open now: Croatian fine dining specializing in schnitzel, thin crust pizza, sausages, seafood, cabbage roast, crepes, organic cigars and wine.
Happy Bubbles Laundromat, 412 S Missouri Ave., open now: A self-service, 24-hour laundry facility.
Pilates By Christine, 639 Cleveland St., open now: Private Pilates instruction and small group classes.
Cleveland Street Studios, 647 Cleveland St., open now: Studio rental space for videos, photography and podcasting.
Race Athletics, 936 Cleveland St., suite C, open now: Gym that offers cardio, fitness and boxing classes and personal training.
The Scrummy Sweets Co., 617 Cleveland St., open now: A candy shop selling sugar-free, naturally sweetened gummy candies.
530 Pub & Grill, 530 Cleveland St., open now: A pub atmosphere with sandwiches, tacos, burgers and live music.
Jamaica Vybz Grille, 623 Cleveland St., coming October: Authentic Caribbean food specializing in oxtail, goat and chicken curries as well as jerk specialties.
Green Culture, 420 Cleveland St., coming December: A plant-based restaurant with juice, smoothies, harvest bowls, baked goods and organic Java. It will be the second location in Tampa Bay after its Trinity location opened in 2019.
The Nashville Keys, 520 Cleveland St., coming December: A Texas roadhouse style restaurant with a dueling piano bar.
KLMarket, 615 Cleveland St., coming soon: An expansion of Kara Lynn’s Kitchen, a paleo, gluten-free and plant-based café at 421 Cleveland St.