SAFETY HARBOR — Downtown merchants said they were excited a year and a half ago when the Jolley Trolley came to town, expecting an increase in foot traffic.
But has the trolley service helped Safety Harbor's businesses?
One concern raised by city commissioners and business owners: Trolley riders aren't coming to Safety Harbor because they don't realize the city has its fair share of restaurants and shops. According to City Manager Matt Spoor, only one downtown business owner currently advertises on the Jolley Trolley.
A newly formed merchants group hopes to see that change: Merchants of Safety Harbor has pledged to spend $6,250 on advertising in the next year.
"There was definitely energy that brought the merchants together at first," said Mercedes Ofalt, chairperson of the merchant board. "I think one of the huge downfalls is the energy didn't stay up. We didn't really continue to advertise on it."
Ofalt also owns Sandwich on Main with her husband and parents.
The open-air trolleys regularly shuttle people around north Pinellas County, with stops in Dunedin, Palm Harbor, Tarpon Springs and Clearwater Beach. The cost is split between participating cities, the county and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
Jolley Trolley executive director Rosemary Windsor said the company has connected Safety Harbor's merchants with Dunedin's merchant association. Dunedin is often viewed as a trolley "success story," she said.
One part of that, she said, is a commitment to advertising.
"There are things the merchants have to do," she said. "It has to be a group effort of saying, 'Okay, now we have to market it.' "
While the company doesn't count passengers every day, it does occasionally track Jolley Trolley riders. Windsor provided ridership data for two weekends in September.
On the first Saturday and Sunday in September, there were 28 trips where people left Safety Harbor. People left the city for Clearwater Beach, Countryside Mall and Dunedin. In comparison, 10 of the trolley's trips brought people to Safety Harbor.
But two weeks later, the number of trips with people coming and going to Safety Harbor were nearly the same.
The yearly cost of the Jolley Trolley in Safety Harbor is $136,000.
Along with the merchant group's advertising pledge, the Safety Harbor route is funded with a $40,000 federal grant, about $30,000 from PSTA, $5,000 from the Safety Harbor Resort and Spa and about $20,000 from the city's Community Redevelopment Agency.
The $40,000 federal grant will expire in two years. Spoor said he hopes the business community's support for the trolley will become even stronger.
"We're encouraged by their willingness to work with the city," he said. "In order to increase ridership, we need to let these riders and visitors know what there is to do in Safety Harbor."
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Ofalt said the merchant group hopes to help put Safety Harbor on the map. She said she has met people in Clearwater and other parts of Pinellas County who have never heard of the city.
"We have amazing boutiques, awesome artists," she said. "We really do feel this town has a lot to offer."
Howard Latham, owner of Tapping the Vine wine bar, has advertised on the trolley since it came to the city.
Latham said he views the trolley as a moving billboard.
"From a business standpoint, you'd like people to be able to come here," he said.
But Latham doesn't begrudge riders who use the trolley to go elsewhere.
"People in the area go all over the place," he said. "You don't serve everybody every day."
Contact Ayana Stewart at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153. Follow @AyanaStewart.