I was sworn in as mayor nine years ago. At that time, around half of the business suites downtown were vacant. We had a number of bars, a few struggling restaurants and some professional offices. There was very little retail in the downtown. There was basically no reason to come downtown unless there was a big special event in the park. Even then, the events tended to be self-contained and provided little benefit for the business community.
Making matters worse, outside organizations, some not even based in Pasco County, realized that they could use downtown New Port Richey as their own private fairground. The low point was one fall when we had nine nearly consecutive weeks of carnivals setting up, operating, or breaking down in the Gloria Swanson parking lot. Other than being an annoyance for the few nearby businesses who were struggling to survive, it didn’t much matter. The Hacienda and most of the other business square footage in the downtown were vacant.
The New Port Richey Main Street organization was struggling to survive as well. Their “solution” was to sponsor a number of big events in the park as fund raising opportunities. The events didn’t bring in enough revenue to get the organization on a solid financial footing and the events were hard on the small group of volunteers who struggled to pull the events off. For those of you who might not be aware, special events are just one component of one of the four pillars of the national Main Street program. The other components of a great Main Street program were lost in the focus on special events.
Fast forward to the present. The multi-million dollar investment in updating Sims Park and Orange Lake has paid huge dividends, not the least of which has been to show potential businesses that the city is serious about improving the business climate. Businesses have filled up virtually all of those vacant spaces. The old post office on Orange Lake, now known as The Commons on Grand, now hosts three businesses and a church. The Hacienda is a busy hotel with a nice restaurant.
The Gloria Swanson lot is no longer sitting vacant waiting for the next carnival or large event. It is full or nearly full on an almost daily basis.
Besides the investment by the city and the business community, what else has changed? The answer is “scale”.
Instead of trying to host multiple large special events each year, New Port Richey Main Street is now concentrating on smaller events, such as the Dessert Stroll, the Fourth Friday Art Walk, a Chalk Art Walk, and mixers for business owners. Combine this with other small events like the folk duo (singing original songs) at the small amphitheater in Sims Park a week ago, last Sunday’s Strawberry Festival by Cindy’s Pets, the Backyard Bazaars on Railroad Square, the Wright’s Farmers’ Markets, Tasty Tuesdays, the Loquat Festival, a variety of shows at the Richey Suncoast Theatre, the Social, and other local businesses as well as the St. Patrick’s Day celebration by Fitzgerald’s, and a variety of concerts and movies in the park, and there is almost always some reason to come downtown.
A respected member of the hospitality industry told me that the key to a thriving downtown was to have uniquely local events to draw in out of town visitors instead of generic events featuring $5 beers and cover bands. Another respected business leader has suggested that we should allow events to set up in the park or the downtown, but not both. I believe both have valid points.
This is not to say that large events are necessarily bad. This month’s Chasco Fiesta is the large special event exception that proves the rule. It will fill up Sims Park for 10 days and bring traffic to a standstill for several hours on March 25th when the amazing Chasco Fiesta Street Parade will course its way from Gulf Drive and Grand Blvd out to Main Street and US 19.
Because of the business growth in the downtown, it is no longer possible for Chasco to have a carnival in the Swanson lot. This year, the carnival will be on US 19, in front of the old SunTrust bank building, just south of Main Street. It will be conveniently located next to the city’s 350 space parking garage and the city will be running the free DART shuttle between the parking garage and Sims Park. Walking will also be an option as the parking garage is an easy five minute walk from Sims Park and will take walkers past a number of great local businesses.
Chasco features a wide variety of music over the course of the 10 days and includes some big name performers like David Nail, Drake Milligan, and Starship, featuring Mickey Thomas as well as John Waite. While Chasco started out as a fund raiser celebrating a bogus account of local Indians, it has grown into a wonderful showcase for authentic Native Americans and their cultures.
The fact that the Chasco Fiesta serves as the major fundraiser for dozens of local non-profits makes the event all that more significant. Please consider volunteering to help the Chasco Fiesta Steering Committee pull off this great event. Contact Tina O’Daniels, firstname.lastname@example.org, for more information.
As New Port Richey continues to develop, it is my hope that the city will continue to emphasize frequent small scale events that put feet on the sidewalks, customers in our bars, restaurants, and retail shops, and provide a uniquely New Port Richey experience that attracts both our local West Pasco residents and out of town visitors to come and enjoy everything that New Port Richey has to offer. New Port Richey is cool enough that we don’t need to try to be like anywhere else. Not Dunedin. Not Dade City. Not anywhere other than New Port Richey.
I’ll leave you with a view of New Port Richey as seen by a first time visitor. It’s 20 minutes long, but well worth watching.
Rob Marlowe, Mayor