Published: June 11, 2010
Updated: March 21, 2013 at 04:34 AM
Britton Plaza, a baby boomer-era shopping center in South Tampa that has outlived some of the city's Generation X malls, is aging gracefully, its strong pulse powered largely by an eclectic assortment of bargain-basement businesses.Through the years, tenants of the sprawling center have come and gone - and come back. Publix, an anchor when Britton Plaza opened 54 years ago, left in 1987 before returning last year.Tapper Pub, launched at Britton Plaza in July 1967, today is sole survivor of the small chain of family-owned taverns it spawned, from North Tampa to Lakeland."We grew old together," Guido Caggiano, 70, said of his business and the shopping center on South Dale Mabry Highway. "We've been here 43 years. It was the first wet-zoning in a shopping center in Hillsborough County."
Today's pub - in a 2,000-square-foot space once occupied by a bakery - started as a beer-only bar, added wine five years later and expanded to full liquor in 1982."We've seen them come and go," Caggiano said of businesses in the nearly full plaza of more than a half-million square feet of rental space. The huge parking lot provides customer convenience, and the return of Publix, a few doors south of the pub, is drawing more shoppers to the center, Caggiano said.Publix opened that 64,700-square-foot market, including pharmacy, floral department and liquor store, in January 2009. Albertsons had vacated the space in 2008, when Publix acquired 49 of Albertsons' Florida stores."Britton Plaza shopping center has been so phenomenal for us. It's doing incredibly well," said Shannon Patten, a spokeswoman for the Lakeland-based grocery. "It's really a reflection on the neighborhood. There's a lot of stability in that neighborhood, and that's their shopping center," she said."We have a very loyal fan base in that area. Tons of customers thanked us; they got their Publix back."As times changed and the economy faltered, Britton Plaza adapted and evolved."We've lost a lot of chains, a lot of chains" as many retail corporations scaled back or failed over the years, said Lenore Reynolds of Bruce Strumpf Inc., the Clearwater company that has long managed Britton Plaza.The plaza that drew 25,000 people to its Aug. 16, 1956, opening celebration otherwise has maintained a steady course for 40 years under the same owner, Charles J. Bickimer."Rents have been low; the maintenance of the property has been low because it didn't go through the metamorphosis that other properties do when they get bought by other people and rejuvenated," Reynolds said.To lure back shoppers lost to malls, Britton Plaza in 1989 underwent renovations totaling $6.5 million, more than twice the cost of constructing the original 38 stores of Tampa's second large shopping center. (Northgate opened in 1956, too, months before Britton Plaza.)There has been no recent encroachment by competitive retail complexes. "No big shopping centers have been built on the southern part of Dale Mabry for a long time. I would have thought a power center would have gone on Gandy [Boulevard] a long time ago," Reynolds said."The demographics have changed. But then, life in general has changed so much" since Britton Plaza opened, she said.The latest demographics for the center in the 3800-3900 blocks of South Dale Mabry Highway paint a pretty picture for retailers.More than 16,000 people live within a mile of the plaza, Reynolds said, citing 2009 data. Per capita income there was $42,616, excellent by market standards that consider $30,000 good, she said. Expand the radius to three miles and the population jumps to 86,000; per capita income increases $1,000.Still, Britton Plaza has an affinity for "off-pricers" or discount chains, including Bealls Outlet, Tuesday Morning, Burlington Coat Factory, Stein Mart and Dollar Tree.And there's Budget Pet, just north of Publix, where retired physician Jeng Lin helps operate the store his son, Victor, bought three years ago from previous owners."As you know, the economy is slow," Jeng Lin said. "This year it seems to be picking up, and we expect to recover," hopefully expanding to accommodate more rodents, reptiles, fish, birds and pet merchandise. The return of Publix sparked an increase in the number of vehicles in the parking lot and more foot traffic for the pet shop, Lin said.Competing with national pet store chains is challenging, so the neighborhood store relies on its established location and personal service. "We try to carry all the customers' needs," and will special order anything not in stock, he said.Reynolds, the leasing agent, marvels at the assortment of values Britton Plaza offers, from party favors and stocking stuffers to scented candles, inexpensive gifts and discounted housewares, "things you could never get anywhere else."Shoppers "hunt for old treasures that were closeouts," often merchandise from a high-end store, Reynolds said. "Sometimes it just makes you feel good to go in there."And there's Britton Plaza's half-century history. "I think it's close to lot of people's hearts that have lived in the neighborhood for a long time," Reynolds said. "It's very nostalgic, as you can see by the pylon sign. You could never get a pylon sign like that today. It's grandfathered in, it has historic preservation."