OLDSMAR — The Oldsmar Galleria, a trendy, multiuse development on State Street, was key to the city's plans to create a vibrant downtown. But four years after the first retail establishment opened its doors in the Galleria, all but two of its 12 storefronts remain vacant.
This week, the City Council approved a new program that will provide grants of up to $5,000 for interior renovations and improvements for downtown commercial properties, such as the Galleria.
Various sites in the redevelopment district near State Street will be eligible for the grants. But a key focus of the new Business Incentive Grant Program is getting greater occupancy in the Galleria, said City Manager Bruce Haddock.
Oldsmar's grant program will reimburse owners or tenants for half of what they spend themselves on eligible projects. For example, on a project where materials cost $7,500, an owner will pay $5,000 and the city will cover the remaining $2,500.
The grants will provide funds for interior alterations and repairs, including drywall, painting and flooring. And they can be used for things such as plumbing or electrical projects. They will cover costs for materials, but cannot be used for labor or permit fees.
This budget year, the city's Community Redevelopment Agency has about $20,000 set aside for the grants, and officials are proposing to set aside more money next year.
Marie Dauphinais, planning and redevelopment director, said people interested in units downtown, especially those in the Galleria, have been "a little overwhelmed" by the perceived costs to occupy them.
The Oldsmar Galleria, a $12-million, 60,000-square-foot project, was developed by Clearwater-based JES Properties. The four-story development has homes on the upper floors, office space on the second floor and retail space on the first floor.
At least 10 of the storefronts still have dirt floors and unfinished walls, indicating they've never had tenants. It doesn't make sense to Vice Mayor Jerry Beverland.
"There's nobody in it," Beverland said Friday. "I don't understand that."
Klein & Heuchan commercial real estate firm is handling the lease of the Galleria. And the firm's president, Mark Klein, said the owner put a lot of money toward paying his debts and thus hasn't been able to complete interior work on many of the units.
But he said the city's new grant program may help get work started or support tenants who had smaller projects in mind.
"Anything economically a city can do to help lure prospective tenants is very important in this marketplace," Klein said.
Just two restaurants inhabit the first floor of the complex. One of them, McAnderson's House of Brews Tavern and Grille is owned by Jamey McMullen. He said the funds could help with some of his own renovations, including sprucing up his restaurant's "beat up" hardwood floors. Projects like that have been on the back burner since he took over the business in June 2011.
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"A lot of our monies have gone to trying to market our business," said McMullen, who has another House of Brews in Lutz.
And council member Doug Bevis said the program may be an incentive for merchants to choose Oldsmar over other nearby cities.
As for the Galleria, there may be a number of reasons why the storefronts have remained empty.
Douglas Weiland, head of JES Properties, said his biggest challenge has been finding tenants in the first place.
And there are other issues complicating the project.
One foreclosure suit filed by Branch Banking and Trust Co. of North Carolina in September involves five of Weiland's companies, including JES and Oldsmar Galleria LLC., and alleges they owe more than $7.6 million.
Weiland said he ran into problems because the bank acquired his loan from Colonial Bank, and "they won't renew without a major change in terms."
Despite the financial challenges, Weiland says, he's still trying to make the Galleria work.
The grants may not "make a huge difference," he said, but "every little bit helps."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4155. Go to tampabay.com/letters to write a letter to the editor.