Largo trying (again) to bolster its downtown
The downtown district has tree-shaded medians, broad sidewalks with benches and an urban park surrounded by commercial space and luxury townhomes.
There’s a collection of restaurants, retailers, a craft brewery and, now, an art gallery.
What downtown Largo doesn’t have is people — at least not enough of them — despite millions of dollars invested to create more of a city center along West Bay Drive.
Business owners are hopeful that might change soon. Several retailers are moving in, a new downtown merchants association is forming and events are in the works to bring more foot traffic to West Bay Drive.
“It’s here. I mean, you’ve just got to peel back the layers,” said Tanya Pistillo, a Largo artist who opened the Wandering Star Gallery last month at 220 West Bay Drive.
“It’s like I have X-ray vision sometimes. I can see underneath it. I can see its potential.”
Pistillo can see the Fresh Air Market coming back to Ulmer Park, a green space with a gazebo across the street from her gallery, where crowds used to gather once a month.
Next weekend, she’s rallying fellow retailers to get outside for a sidewalk festival celebrating Mother’s Day.
Businesses are opening. Pistillo renovated an empty storefront where she displays the work of local artists and offers classes. Proino Breakfast Club has been drawing a good crowd since it opened a couple of months ago. A gelato shop is moving in.
What long-time retailers have seen in recent years is less heartening: new businesses opening but quickly closing.
That’s been particularly true in West Bay Plaza, a high-rent commercial space built around Ulmer Park that’s often had vacancy signs in many of its storefront windows since opening in the early 2000s.
The downtown retail district, which stretches along West Bay Drive from Largo Central Park — just east of Missouri Avenue to 16th Street Northwest — has been the target of city investment for years as a designated community redevelopment area.
The city has spent more than $14 million through tax increment financing and other sources to spruce up the district planting trees, restoring brick streets and adding benches and bus shelters in hopes of creating a walkable shopping district less than a mile from attractions such as the Largo Cultural Center and Largo Central Park.
The hectic intersection of Missouri Avenue and West Bay Drive, though, remains a nearly impassable boundary for pedestrians, forcing people to drive from one destination to the other.
“We don’t see anybody really out walking,” said Anthony Jack, co-owner of Gulf Coast Po’Boys at 312 West Bay Drive.
“Once in a while, there’ll be functions and there’ll be a couple of people out and about, but after that, they just get in their cars and leave.”
Jack and his business partner, Michael Brandt, said they have built a loyal customer base among the local police force, but their success in the past four years stems from becoming a destination spot rather than attracting walk-ins.
Some business owners question why the city hasn’t maintained municipal buildings downtown, especially if the goal is to make it a more bustling retail district.
In 2011, the Largo Community Center moved into a new 30,000-square-foot building a few miles away, and the city later razed the old community center on First Avenue Northwest and Fourth Street, a block north of West Bay. The city wants to sell that plot as well as the 500 block lot that is partly occupied by the Barley Mow craft brewery.
Bill Hadden, owner of Salon 314, next door to Gulf Coast Po’Boys, said he’s puzzled about why the city has over the years moved City Hall and other municipal buildings out of downtown.
“To me, it seems like they’re moving downtown out of downtown,” he said.
Part of the reason city officials moved City Hall and the community center was to free up prime real estate for the redevelopment that occurred in West Bay Village.
Without those city offices, though, downtown lost a lot of foot traffic, people who could have supported the businesses the city is trying to attract.
Another challenge is the hectic traffic along West Bay, Clearwater-Largo Road and Missouri Avenue. Adding more crosswalks and traffic-calming measures might help, as cars on the four-lane road mostly disregard the 35 mph speed limit, Hadden said.
“It’s like playing ‘Frogger’ out there trying to run across this, which isn’t conducive to having a good business environment,” Hadden said.
City officials have high hopes that plans in the works can bring more people downtown.
This summer, the City Commission will consider creating incentives to bring more housing and offices downtown.
Despite the struggles of the commercial space, the West Bay Village townhomes are incredibly popular, and there’s demand for more urban housing, said Teresa Brydon, economic development manager.
The city may offer financial incentives to businesses that want to build or move into downtown office space based on how many jobs they create. City officials are also considering changes to signage rules to help existing businesses catch the eyes of drivers passing through the area.
“All of the sudden, developers are back in looking at what can we do and what products can we put out,” Brydon said. “I do see change since the beginning of January in development in general. We’re very busy here right now.”
The city is also offering grants and fee waivers for individuals and business owners such as Pistillo to help them start up new events downtown.
For the time being, the goal is to keep Largo residents in town instead of driving off to Dunedin or St. Petersburg to enjoy their vibrant downtowns, said Jamie Robinson, a city commissioner and longtime manager of Largo Feed & Pet Supply at 210 West Bay Drive.
“I would like to see it become a destination, somewhere where there’s restaurants and retail and art galleries, just a big mix of shops,” Robinson said.
In the meantime, Robinson wants to see more crosswalks and perhaps a sign letting visitors know they have arrived in downtown Largo.
Creating a sense of identity downtown is fundamental to Pistillo’s vision to revive a sense of community among the businesses here.
“When you have that absence of an identity, who would want to be around?” she said. “You don’t know about it. What is it? You really can’t describe it.”
Pamphlets advertising her gallery and the return of the market this fall describe the venue as “Lovely Downtown Largo.”
Rather than taking her artwork to other cities that have thriving city centers, Pistillo wants to reconnect with her hometown and give back to the people here.
“This is the place that I was raised. I shouldn’t have to leave here,” she said.
“I wanted to connect it, because I felt disconnected.”