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Top Story — July: St. Armands Circle merchants question restaurant ratio

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  • | 6:20 a.m. December 28, 2016
Business owners leaving St. Armands Circle think the character of the tourist district is changing. What does that mean for shops in the area?
Business owners leaving St. Armands Circle think the character of the tourist district is changing. What does that mean for shops in the area?
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As Tube Dude owner Scott Gerber prepares to relocate his store from St. Armands Circle to Main Street in downtown Sarasota, he’s not wanting for a reason to justify the move.

Gerber moved his business into the storefront at 26 N. Blvd. of the Presidents in summer 2013. Since then, he’s developed a series of grievances with the direction of St. Armands.

The clientele on the Circle has changed, he said — it’s not as upscale as it once was. There’s too much traffic cutting through the commercial tourist district. The rents are too high, he says. There’s not enough promotion of the Circle as a shopping destination, and the city doesn’t do enough work to maintain the area. (His business happens to be trending upward, he said, but he credits that to widespread exposure of his Tube Dudes).

This isn’t even a comprehensive list of his problems, but one other trend eclipses the rest in Gerber’s eyes: the proliferation of restaurants and other food-related businesses on the Circle.

“If they want this to be a shopping area, they’ve got to figure out how to decrease the number of restaurants,” Gerber said.

Although the validity of Gerber’s concerns varies depending on whom you talk to, the restaurant question has been a topic of interest on St. Armands for more than a decade. In the mid-2000s, the St. Armands Business Improvement District proposed a restriction on the number of restaurants on the Circle. The BID flirted with the idea again in 2013.

In 2014, retail consultant Robert Gibbs conducted a study that suggested there was demand for an additional 13,900 square feet of restaurants on the Circle. Still, Gerber — whose storefront will be filled by a popcorn business — says the influx of smaller food shops is attracting a different type of consumer to the area, which can hurt stores selling big-ticket items.

“I can look at the bags and know if a customer is worth my time,” Gerber said. “The guy that’s going to spend $1,500 isn’t buying peanuts.”

Even if the customers are different, it doesn’t mean business is declining.

Diana Corrigan, executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association, agrees that the number of food-related businesses has increased during the past two decades. Because of the diverse mix of property owners on the Circle, any concerted effort to manage the business mix on St. Armands would prove difficult. Instead, Corrigan is welcoming of the successful food shops.

“Some of the restaurants we’ve acquired and some of the food businesses we’ve acquired have been really good things for the Circle,” Corrigan said.

Barry Seidel, president of commercial real estate firm American Property Group, said a specific class of business is cut out for success on the Circle. Between rent and special assessments, Gerber said he paid an average of $9,700 per month for his space. Not every store can thrive in that environment.

“Whatever it is, it has to do two things,” Seidel said. “It has to appeal to a tourist, and it has to have a lot of volume.”

Restaurants are well-suited to draw in tourists, but it’s a trickier proposition for retail businesses. Certain people might turn their noses up at traditional beach shops like Alvin’s Island, but Seidel said that’s exactly the type of store that’s built to last.

“The stores that tell tchotchkes, the pick-me-ups, the things to remember Sarasota from — those types of businesses do well out there,” Seidel said.

Miami-based Commodore Realty owns two St. Armands commercial properties, including the building anchored by jewelry store McCarver & Moser. After 35 years on the St. Armands, McCarver & Moser is planning a move to downtown Sarasota, too, with owner Roland Moser citing many of the concerns Gerber expressed.

“I think it will be more favorable to be downtown, not to be on the Circle,” Moser said after announcing the move in 2015. “The Circle is going to be more and more restaurants, and there’s only the stores left that are getting more and more tourist-oriented.”

Nicole Christodoulou, an agent with Commodore Realty, said a good portion of her inquiries on St. Armands come from food businesses. She, too, doesn’t equate the popularity of restaurants with a declining interest in the Circle, pointing out Commodore’s properties are fully leased.

“I get a lot of calls from sweets shops — gelato seems to be the new craze,” Christodoulou said. “Anything that appeals to impulse buyers seems to be pretty popular.”

The continued popularity of the Circle is part of what makes it a challenge for some merchants. A vacant building might be less connected to an uptick in restaurants and more related to a misjudged market.

“I think you’re always going to have the in-and-outs,” Seidel said. “A person thinks they can go there and they can do so much business and pay the rents. You’d be surprised — a lot of the people who own businesses over there, they’re not getting rich.”

Although some tenants are packing up, Corrigan said other businesses are having their strongest summer ever. She attributes the changing storefronts to the normal dynamics of a commercial district.

“Do I ever like to see a business leave the Circle?” Corrigan said. “Of course not. Do I see an increase leaving? No, not at all.”

 

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