Louise Kennedy Converse, cheesemonger and owner of the Artisan Cheese Co., was fed up with the construction across the street from her business almost as soon as it began.
Starting July 7, street repairs on the north side of the 1300 block of Main Street had caused a reduction in parking and made the area more difficult to navigate — which was only worsened by what she considered a lack of clear signage indicating stores were still open. Altogether, Converse says the construction caused a 50% reduction in her business.
“I think they called it a ‘slight disruption,’” Converse said, mocking the Downtown Improvement District’s characterization of the Main Street improvement project.
When the Downtown Improvement District — the group spearheading the Main Street improvements — attempted to expand the construction to include new brick crosswalks at Palm Avenue, Converse was prepared to make a stand.
She spoke at the July 15 City Commission meeting and asked the commissioners to reject the additional construction, which would shut down the intersection at Palm and Main for 18 work days, for the sake of her business.
That aspect of the Main Street improvement efforts was postponed to September, traditionally a slower month for business. Still, the rest of the construction continues, and Converse isn’t the only downtown business owner upset about the construction.
Ron Soto is the owner of Soto’s Optical, also on the 1300 block of Main Street, and president of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association. He also opposed the construction, calling the entire process “backwards.”
From a storeowner’s perspective, Soto said, parking is paramount. He said the still-in-development State Street garage should have been in place before the streetscape improvements began. Soto says the installation of additional bulb-outs and the institution of parallel parking on the north side of a segment of Main Street will result in a shortage of parking spots.
“The residents, thinking it was going to create a walkable downtown, were all for it,” Soto said of the Main Street improvements. “I get that, but as far as the merchants are concerned, you need to have a place to park the car before you can walk around.”
Ernie Ritz, chairman of the Downtown Improvement District, says there was ample public input in deciding which projects with which to go forward.
“We have to understand that it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment idea we had,” Ritz said. “It took three years to get these plans and hundreds of people — merchants included — coming to meetings and workshops we had.”
The plans for Main Street improvements were developed at Semcon 2010, a city workshop to devise a vision for the future of downtown.
The people complaining now, Ritz said, are the vocal minority: people who never went to meetings while plans were being developed and are “totally uninformed.” He believes they’ll see the work pay off in the long term, and he pointed to the 2004 bricking of Lemon Avenue — where he owns a business — as a project that paid dividends.
“I don’t know what to tell you about people still complaining — we’re trying to improve downtown,” Ritz said. “When it’s done, we’re going to improve business.”
Not all businesses are upset by the improvements. Daniel Christian is the manager of A. Parker’s Books, 1488 Main St., where work crews are tearing up the ground directly in front of the store. Still, Christian said the bookstore hasn’t seen a decline in traffic since construction has begun.
“They picked a really good time of year to do it because it’s a slower period, so I don’t know that it’s affected business at all so far,” Christian said.
With the construction already under way, all Soto can do now is wish for the best from the repairs.
“What we pray and hope is that these guys made a good decision, and by doing the widening of the sidewalks that it’ll bring more people downtown,” Soto said.
Contact David Conway at [email protected].