Over the course of the last several weeks we have had three very different events: The city’s first National Drive Electric Week Cruise-in, The city’s first Pasco Pride Festival, and the returning Cotee River Bike Fest. All three events showcased the downtown business district.
The Cruise-in handed out maps showing where the local dining establishments were located.
The Pasco Pride folks actually enlisted downtown merchants and a number of downtown businesses showed that they were gay friendly be displaying rainbow flags. The event sold wristbands good for discounts at participating businesses.
The Bike Fest had the normal compliment of food vendors in the park, but the event footprint covered the entire historic downtown area, including a second stage in the middle of Grand Blvd. Motorcycle owners parked in front of downtown businesses and a number of the riders checked out those businesses.
While all three events exposed visitors to our growing assortment of downtown businesses, they only provided a temporary bump to some businesses. This is better than what typically happens during one of the events that are completely self contained in Sims Park, but it still isn’t a solution to the challenge of building a balanced business district.
So what is the solution? The short answer is: “It’s complicated.” The longer answer is that we need to address a number of issues to make our business district more diverse and dynamic. Some of these issues have been addressed, some are being addressed, and some still need to be addresses. Here is my list:
- Downtown businesses need to be visible. Replacing the old trees with palms was designed specifically for this purpose.
- Encouraging businesses to upgrade their appearance. We have a number of facade and improvement grants available to businesses wishing to fix up their building.
- Encouraging outdoor dining. We updated our ordinances to make it easier for businesses to have sidewalk dining. The dining deck in front of Sip is another part of this effort. People sitting at tables on the sidewalk makes it obvious to people driving by that there is a reason to stop.
- Get more people on the sidewalks. The Shop & Sip events are designed for exactly this purpose and a growing number of downtown businesses participate in them. The next one is on Friday, October 19th.
- Special events centered in the downtown. The NPR After Dark Halloween Party on October 27th and Trick or Treat on October 31st are both being hosted by a group of downtown businesses.
- People need to be able to come downtown without driving cars. The golf cart ordinance partially addresses this, but the bigger solution involves making it easier to bike or walk from home to the downtown. Main Street Landing will be opening early next year. It sits right between the historic downtown and US 19. It will be within easy walking distance from everything.The Central on Orange Lake will likewise offer walking access to the downtown.Changing our building code to allow accessory dwelling units (ADUs) on residential properties near the downtown may also be part of this solution. For the uninitiated, an ADU is a second living unit, such as a “mother in law” apartment, sitting in an otherwise single family lot.
- Parking. There are several proposed solutions to solve parking issues. Some of them are relatively inexpensive. This is an issue that still needs to be addressed. I expect it to be addressed first by special event organizers, but the lessons learned with the special events will help us with addressing the general parking situation.
One complaint about our downtown is the lack of retail stores. This is a valid complaint, but won’t be solved until there are enough people walking on the sidewalks for retailers to survive. Increasing the number of people living within walking distance of the downtown is a key getting more people on the sidewalks. Giving them some destinations to go to is also part of the puzzle. Anyone living in Main Street Landing walking the couple of blocks to Wright’s Natural Market will have to walk past quite a few storefronts that would be perfect for small retail businesses. Likewise, people living at the Central will be walking past the storefronts on Adams or Grand as they walk to whatever business is their primary destination.
There is a point where the downtown will achieve critical mass and things will take off. I believe we are close to that point now. Carolyn and I frequently walk over to Rose’s after we close up on Friday evening. The White Heron is just two doors down from there and, particularly on Shop & Sip nights, we’ll make the rounds to all of other places like the Art Gallery, Dream Bubbles and the other businesses. Once Wright’s opens their new store downtown, we’ll have a reason to walk the whole block of Main Street from Grand to Adams. Wright’s carries a “bark” made of dark chocolate and coconut that is a favorite snack of mine.
Another complaint is that we have too many bars. Perhaps, but they are changing before our eyes. The “drink till you sink” crowd is being replaced by a more upscale group who come to check out the craft beers brewed onsite at the Cotee River Brewing Company, the ambiance of Ordinance One, and the unique setting that is Pete’s Grand Central. Pete’s is a combination of bar and antique shop. It sounds a bit strange, but it works remarkably well.
I can live with the downtown being a dining and entertainment district while we work on building the foot traffic that will allow new retail stores to survive and thrive.
Dreaming big, consider what could happen with downtown New Port Richey tied to the Port Richey Waterfront. It’s not that difficult. The last “after dark” ride out of Sip included a couple dozen bicycle riders going up Grand Blvd and over to the Port Richey Waterfront.
We’re working with Port Richey and the county to create a pedestrian / bike / golf cart underpass under the US 19 bridge that would help connect us. I believe this will happen and we’ll be discussing a safe route from the Port Richey city limit to the downtown before the underpass is completed.
Captain Wendy has been toying with the idea of operating a water taxi between the Downtown and the Port Richey Waterfront. There has to be enough potential traffic to justify the investment required. I can’t speak for the Port Richey end, but it would be easy enough to arrange for a water taxi to dock at one of the docks in Sims Park.
An increase in the number of nice residential units near the downtown will have another major effect: It will encourage businesses to take a look at the potential workforce available if they set up shop in New Port Richey. The Marine District, composed of the area around the old Community Hospital site, would be a perfect place for tech and other 21st century employers to consider. It is telling that several of the startups we had in the business incubator were tech firms. We have residents that drive to Tampa daily to get to tech jobs. If we present companies with a “complete package” of vibrant downtown, quality housing, a local workforce, and an affordable location for their business, we’ve got something. To the extent that we can “sweeten the pot” with incentives to make that move easier, we will be all the more attractive.
So coming full circle, I believe that having a variety of big special events are beneficial to making New Port Richey an interesting place to live. I don’t believe that they are the key to building our downtown or revitalizing our city in general.
The solution is “complicated” and we need to continue to address improving our community on multiple levels with multiple approaches. The city is committed, with an economic development officer and grant funds. The downtown businesses have shown that they are committed, ponying up the time and money for things like the NPR Downtown After Dark and Shop & Sip events. Developers like Dr. McGurn (Main Street Landing) have shown that they are committed, literally investing millions to transform New Port Richey. Potential business owners, like Captain Wendy and her proposed water taxi, are taking notice and making the effort to see what it would take to create a viable business downtown.
I believe we are VERY close to reaching that critical mass point where things will take off.
Rob Marlowe, Mayor