EAST COUNTY — Every morning, the owners and managers of businesses that occupy Ranch Lake Plaza, the center formerly anchored by the now-closed Sweetbay Supermarket, park in a cluster near the front of their stores to create an illusion of activity.
“It’s a ghost town,” said Faye Cunningham, manager of Cove Cleaners, a plaza tenant with a lobby that features framed awards and photographs. “It’s sad. We will do anything to keep surviving.”
A year after Sweetbay closed its 49,430-square-foot East County location at 8750 State Road 70 E. due to poor sales, the prominent space remains empty.
Without an anchor to support them, tenants inside Ranch Lake Plaza, a center managed by New York city-based Gemini Real Estate Advisors, say their business has stagnated, in most cases remaining flat with regular customers still coming, but potential new shoppers going elsewhere — or being unaware the stores even exist.
Since Sweetbay closed mid-February 2013, three businesses — Holistic for Pets, SunniBunni and Water Club Pool Supplies — left the plaza after their leases expired.
“Sweetbay closing is 100% the reason why we left,” said Kyle Baker, the manager of Holistic for Pets, which moved in November to River Club Plaza, the new Walmart-anchored center next door. “We had been there seven years and our business stopped growing. Just moving some 500 yards down the road, in a place with a little more notoriety, has boosted sales 10%.”
William Obeid, Gemini’s president and CEO, said he expects to land a new tenant to fill Sweetbay’s space soon.
“We are working on exciting prospects,” said Obeid, who would not comment further for this story.
Owners of the businesses still here, including owners from Full Belly Stuffed Burgers, Anytime Fitness, N2U Salon & Spa, Crispers, Sunny Wok, Soprano’s Pizza and more, want to be a part of the process.
Some criticize Gemini for poor communication — or none at all.
Alan Lorina, the owner of Cove Cleaners, said a group of business owners sent a letter to Gemini requesting a temporary rent reduction.
Gemini did not respond to the letter, Lorina said.
Kevin Sollie, the owner of Anytime Fitness, a tenant since March 2012, has hired a lawyer to request a temporary rent reduction from the $9,849 per month he currently pays.
Before Sweetbay closed, Sollie says his business was meeting growth targets set by the Anytime Fitness franchise.
Within 60 days of Sweetbay’s departure, however, Sollie said, walk-in traffic dropped 50%.
“You sign a lease in good faith,” said Sollie, who signed a six-year lease. “The reason we agreed to pay a high rent is because we had a high-traffic anchor. If I had known the anchor was leaving, I could have opened off Lena Road (in a lower profile spot), put a sign in the road and paid half of what I’m paying now.”
Matt Holt, who owns Full Belly Stuffed Burgers with his mom, Pinki Goolsby, said he spends more on marketing to compensate for a lack of exposure that would come from a high-traffic anchor.
Fully Belly opened just a few days before Sweetbay closed, moving to what it thought was a prime location, after formerly serving its eccentric burgers at the Sarasota Farmer’s Market.
“We’re as new and as small as you can get; if we were to just rely on traffic in the plaza, we would be out of business,” Holt said. “It doesn’t sit well that it’s been a year now and nothing has happened with that space.”
Keyboards & More, a specialty store that repairs and sells instruments, and teaches music, opened its East County location in Ranch Lake Plaza (its second store in Bradenton), in 2009.
Customers who frequent it come with a specific need, so it’s difficult to measure Sweetbay’s impact; but, the loss of the anchor does affect awareness, said owner Sharie Schultz.
“People don’t buy a loaf of bread and suddenly decide, ‘I want to play the flute,’” Schultz said. “But people don’t want to walk in a center where half the stores are empty. It’d be nice to get an update from (Gemini) every two to three months to know they haven’t forgotten about us.”
But change may be coming soon.
Based on conversations with construction crews whom they see occasionally walk into Sweetbay’s former space, neighboring business owners speculate Goodwill will become the anchor.
Yen Reed, director of marketing for Goodwill Manasota, would not confirm that information.
Ultimately, the identity of the anchor doesn’t matter to the tenants still here.
“I’d take anything that would put cars in the lot,” Cunningham said.
As she prepared to send mailers with rewards — incentives to shop frequently— to regular customers — Cunningham texted a photo to her boss, Lorina, dated 10 a.m., Feb. 6.
The photo showed a picture of Ranch Lake Plaza’s parking lot, with only one car — her own — occupying a space.
CURRENT RANCH LAKE PLAZA TENANTS
• Cove Cleaners
• Soprano’s Pizza
• Keyboards & More
• H&R Block
• L.A. Nails & Tanning
• Sandra D's Hair Salon
• Full Belly Stuffed Burgers
• N2U Salon & Spa
• Anytime Fitness
• Sunny Wok
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].