St. Pete Pier businesses weighing options
ST. PETERSBURG - Business owners facing the imminent closure of The Pier say there’s no other shopping destination like it around that draws the same volume of foot traffic to a single spot. For some, that means closing up shop for good on May 31 after decades in business. Others hope to relocate and tap into other tourist-heavy places, such as John’s Pass Village in Madeira Beach. Jon LaBudde, who opened his popular surf-themed restaurant Jonny Reno’s less than two years ago, still doesn’t know where he’s going, and that makes him anxious, so much so that he’s willing to offer a share of his business maybe even as much as 49 percent to a partner who will help him reopen in a prime location. “What’s happened is downtown St. Petersburg is so popular that there aren’t any spaces available, so I’ve been hard-pressed to find a spot,” said LaBudde, who is also a commercial Realtor.That’s a dilemma for many Pier shop owners who rely on the heavy foot traffic delivered by a premier tourist draw. In December, David Dahms moved his memorabilia shop, DD Collectibles, to John’s Pass Village, which he said is one of the only other places in Pinellas County that’s somewhat comparable to the Pier. The move cost him $35,000 a financial gamble for businesses considering a location with less tourist traffic. While other tenants renewed their leases with the city for an additional seven months last fall, perhaps hoping The Pier wouldn’t close, Dahms said he saw the writing on the wall. “If I waited ‘til now, I would have absolutely nowhere to go,” he said. In fact, there’s no retail space left at John’s Pass Village now, Dahms said. LaBudde admits he had unrealistic hopes that the city’s deadline to close The Pier would remain vague when he and his business partners opened in summer 2011. Business has been strong at Jonny Reno’s, but LaBudde had planned on three years of good profits to pay for his initial investment, and now he’s looking at another big expenditure to open again. “I’m forced to kind of build out of a restaurant twice,” he said. The Shops at St. Pete, the former BayWalk shopping complex on Second Avenue North, expressed interest in Jonny Reno’s; but after reviewing the center’s plans, LaBudde said he realized it didn’t have the available space he needed. LaBudde has run other successful downtown businesses, including the Big Catch, a music venue on Beach Drive that drew big crowds in the 1990s, and he’s convinced that location is the single most important factor for his restaurant’s future. That means he’s only interested in relocating to parts of town that already draw good crowds, or possibly to St. Pete Beach, where his restaurant could remain true to its identity as a “waterfront watering hole.” Apart from that, LaBudde said he’s open to tweaking his concept, merging with another restaurant or making other changes to ensure he’s not out of business for an extended period of time this summer. “Because I’ve got my back against the wall, I would be extremely generous,” he said. Other Pier tenants aren’t up for a change. After 25 years in business, Carol Gray says she’ll close her Crystal Mirage Gallery in May. When a pair of tourists asked about the red Stop the Lens button on her shirt Wednesday, her tone became grim as she explained the petition to stop the city from tearing down the 1970s-era pier. Location is everything, and to risk a move to a less desirable tourist spot would be to risk her retirement savings at this point, Gray said. “Everybody comes to The Pier,” she said. “There is no other destination like it.”
Video: Food Network star Alton Brown tries Tampa's cuban sandwiches, says they weren't 'what I expected'