Many merchants along Palm Avenue like to think their stores sit on the nicest street in the city, but, for some, that hasn’t produced the type of business they imagined when they opened up shop.
Doug Gourley, owner of As Good As It Gets, has reached out to the city twice over the past two months regarding the installation of a wayfinding system to guide pedestrians to the Palm Avenue shopping area. The city has been working on instituting wayfinding signage for the better part of a decade, and Gourley was miffed that nothing has been done — and that he hasn’t heard back from the city.
Gourley said business has been sluggish, and he believes it’s partially because residents and visitors are not aware of the shopping opportunities along Palm Avenue. He said the city has done a great job promoting Main Street and St. Armands Circle, but when it comes to Palm, he feels it has dropped the ball.
What’s more concerning to him, based on the lack of response, is that he believes there’s no sense of urgency from the city to respond to business owners’ issues.
“If it doesn't improve within another 10 to 12 months, I'll be out of business,” Gourley said. “This is not playtime — this is how people feed their children and pay their mortgages.”
Ken Taksen, owner of M.L. Gosling gift gallery and vice president of the Palm Avenue Merchants Association, has also been critical of the city. He said that constant construction — such as the in-season installation of a roundabout at Palm and Ringling Boulevard — has hampered economic activity.
Taksen said that, over the eight years his store has been in business, he has yet to see a return on his investment. As repairs began on Dolphin Tower last month — which Palm merchants said started without warning — Taksen made his concerns clear.
“We can ill afford yet another disruption to what should be a great business environment on Palm,” Taksen said at a March meeting of the Downtown Improvement District.
Downtown Economic Development Coordinator Norm Gollub said the city has not been looking into foot traffic in individual areas of the city. When it comes to Palm Avenue specifically, Gollub said he hasn’t heard many complaints about a lack of activity. He agreed that a wayfinding system would be helpful, but believes a holistic — and deliberate — approach is necessary.
“The city is working its way through the various hitches that have to be untied with FDOT to make it happen,” Gollub said.
City Manager Tom Barwin agreed that wayfinding has to be approached on a citywide scale. Barwin said a frequent concern from city residents is too much sign clutter, so the city has proceeded with caution on that front.
Barwin said, anecdotally, he’s seen an uptick in pedestrian activity over the past year and a half along Palm Avenue. He points to street-improvement projects undertaken last year as evidence of the city’s commitment to the area, and more landscape upgrades are scheduled for summer. Special events, such as February’s Sarasota Masters Art Festival, also help promote the area, Barwin said.
In addition to flowers and new crosswalks, Barwin said several businesses in the area signal an uptick in economic activity. He said Louies Modern has drawn more people to that stretch of downtown, and planned projects such as Hotel Sarasota and the residential/hotel development One Palm will only increase pedestrian traffic along Palm Avenue.
Barwin said the city was open to hearing ideas from business owners, but, from his perspective, Palm Avenue is headed in the right direction.
“It’s a gorgeous, beautiful area of our downtown,” Barwin said.
Eileen Hampshire, owner of Art To Walk On and a member of the city’s Downtown Improvement District, agreed things were improving. She said this year was the best for business in the seven years her shop has been open.
Still, she doesn’t think the city can be credited for fostering activity along Palm Avenue.
“I don’t think the city is actively trying to help the business environment,” Hampshire said. “I don’t think they’re even thinking about it.”
Hampshire said she felt the special events along Palm Avenue only served to distract shoppers from the businesses in the area, steering them instead to non-local vendors. Hampshire’s preeminent concern is the parking situation, saying that the streets fill before 10 a.m. even if nobody is shopping. She thinks a well implemented paid-parking program could actually help business in the area.
Even though Hampshire thinks more can be done to promote the shopping district and encourage activity, her assessment of the environment is still more good than bad.
“I don’t think it’s as dire as some people might say,” Hampshire said.
Contact David Conway at [email protected]