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9/17/2009

News

Down on Main Street
The short life and unceremonious death of a Parramore business and the city program that was supposed to help it succeed

 

Karen Peters should have known it wouldn’t work. Even with the city’s generous incentives and the Dyer administration’s lofty talk about Parramore renovation, and even though her business would be housed just across West Church Street from the under-construction Amway Center, her idea simply wasn’t tenable. Not there, not then.

“The concept I had was not going to work in Parramore,” says Peters, 40.

From summer 2007 to this spring, her concept – a health and beauty boutique called Sakilé, an African word for “peace and beauty” – was housed in a tiny storefront amidst a string of African-themed shops and restaurants known as Vendor Way, located at the base of a city-owned parking garage. As the arena across the street reached into the skyline, Sakilé struggled in an area that doesn’t see much foot traffic.

Peters’ story isn’t just about a failed business venture; it’s also about the city’s efforts to revitalize a depressed neighborhood and spruce things up ahead of the $480 million Amway Center’s expected fall 2010 ribbon-cutting.

But on West Church Street, all the incentives in the world can’t overcome market forces, particularly forces encumbered by entrenched city red tape, as she discovered.

In March, the city told Peters it wouldn’t renew her lease because she hadn’t adhered to rules in her agreement. It gave her a month to get out. She suspects something else is at play.

“When I started asking questions about the future of [Vendor Way], I started getting [officials saying], ‘We’re concerned about the store,’” she says.

Today, Sakilé is a tiny, empty storefront in a stretch of commerce that appears abandoned during the day. The city is biding its time, hoping that the events center will create new interest in the businesses right across the street.

It will come too late for Sakilé.

Strings attached

By 2006, signs pointed to a renewal in Parramore, the district of homeless shelters and social-service agencies named for long-ago Orlando mayor and Confederate soldier James B. Parramore. As the east side of I-4 saw a glut of new condo high-rises, there was reason to hope that a neighborhood besieged for decades by poverty and crime could be on the verge of a renaissance.

Peters wanted in. In November 2006, she put her name on the waiting list for Vendor Way. (The city defines it as the 400 block of West Church Street, but it unofficially encompasses both the 400 and 500 blocks, stretching from I-4 to Parramore Avenue.) By April 2007, her space came through. It was small – 266 square feet – but cheap. Her rent was just $230 per month.

The city threw in other incentives. At the Aug. 6, 2007, city council meeting, Peters was awarded $31,206 over three years in start-up money under the city’s MEBA program, which helps minority and women-owned businesses. (Her store was one of five in the Vendor Way area that received MEBA grants; the others are Johnson’s Diner, Paradise Island Café, a men’s clothing store called All Tied Up and the Shiobhan Charles Salon.)

A couple of days after that went through, Peters says she received a call from Disney Entrepreneur Center, which wanted to trumpet her success, though her store had yet to open. Her poster went up in City Hall.

But the money came with strings attached. Sakilé had to be open seven hours a day, six days a week. For Peters, who has three young children – ages 2, 4 and 6 – being her store’s only worker proved nearly impossible to manage, especially when another part of her grant agreement required her to take part in community events, such as the Lake Eola farmers market, and participate in the Greater West Side Downtown Merchants Association. She had to stay open on Saturdays, even though “there’s not a soul on the street.” And since Peters makes the merchandise she sells, minding the store became a serious drain on her time.

Of course, Peters could have hired someone on her own dime; in fact, that’s what the city told her to do. But the business wasn’t there.

“I thought people were going to come down,” she says. “They didn’t.”

Six months after she moved in, things got worse. Arena-related construction kicked up dust and eviscerated parking. To survive, the businesses on Vendor Way needed customers. The city had an idea.

Distraction

In July 2007, the city recruited an economic development specialist from Cleveland to jump-start a Main Street program, a national program that aims to strengthen retail districts. Pauline Eaton saw a lot of potential in Parramore.

“Parramore Avenue is one of the most pristine historical districts in the city,” says the self-proclaimed “historic preservation geek.”

In the spring of 2008, Eaton approached Vendor Way businesses with a proposal: fold the West Side Downtown Merchants Association into the city’s Main Street program, a $50,000-per-year grant that allows business districts to hire a full-time director. The Main Street programs focus on four areas: marketing, design, financial and personnel organization, and economic restructuring. Parramore Heritage Main Street businesses needed help with all four, but most of all marketing – specifically, getting people used to shopping and eating in an area they otherwise wouldn’t.

In March 2008, Parramore became one of the city’s first three Main Streets; others would follow. The Parramore Heritage Main Street program hired young, effusive Philecia McCain as its leader. (In an e-mail, McCain declined to comment for this story.)

Unlike the other Main Street programs, the one in Parramore would help startups rather than established businesses, such as the ones on Ivanhoe Row. But it would give these businesses something important that they’d never had before – a legitimate marketing presence.

Today, the other programs still exist. Parramore’s lasted just a few months. By the end of that summer, the city pulled the plug.

Says city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh, “The city determined that until the revitalization efforts of Parramore, and the Amway Center in particular, were further along, it was best to suspend the Parramore Main Street program.”

The city’s official explanation is that Parramore just wasn’t ready for a Main Street program, and that before these businesses focused on marketing themselves to a larger audience they needed to figure out the basics of business management.

Just as the program got up and running, Eaton says, two things happened: The economy started falling apart, and the Amway Center construction brought chaos to Vendor Way. Between the two, the business owners were having a hard time running their enterprises and had no time to focus on the Main Street program.

“Main Street is volunteer-driven,” Eaton points out. “[The business owners] still do the majority of the work. We had some very strained business owners at that time.”

But the businesses did their part. They secured $10,000 in local donations, as the city required. In June 2008, they hosted an open house that drew 50 individuals and businesses. By the standard of other Main Street programs, such a draw wouldn’t be worth bragging about. In Parramore, it was lauded as a small victory.

Meanwhile, the city responded to the businesses’ needs. When arena construction nearly erased nearby parking in summer 2008, the city cut Vendor Way rents to almost nothing. Peters’ rent dropped to just $50 a month.

As she tells it, McCain got off to a rough start. She missed an interview with city commissioner Daisy Lynum, who is Parramore’s power broker. Hired anyway, McCain “was very outspoken,” Peters says. “She told it like it was to anyone who would listen. She came to each store and made suggestions: ‘You need to make this look like this.’ Some of the merchants didn’t like that at all.”

The degree to which personality conflicts led to the program’s demise is unknown. Months after the program ended, in a meeting with Vendor Way merchants in January, commissioner Lynum said she thought the program had become a distraction.

Minding the store

At a meeting with Lynum in January, Peters laid out her concerns – particularly the mandated hours of operation – and got a sympathetic ear from the commissioner. Lynum got on the phone and made what Peters describes as an overly combative call to someone at City Hall, demanding results.

“She said, ‘Don’t do anything,’?” Peters says. “?‘I am going to take care of this.’?” Lynum told the merchants not to re-sign their lease agreements until they heard back from her.

A month later – and a month before Peters was to renew her lease – she got called into a meeting with city officials. “I got called in and told, ‘You need to close your business,’?” she says. They gave her a month to get out.

Peters suspects that they wanted her gone in part because she kept haranguing them about the city’s plan for the parking garage and the need for more marketing help.

The city says that’s not the case. “She wasn’t upholding her end of the contract,” says Allebaugh.

Peters doesn’t argue the point. “They had every right to do it,” she says. “Many times my rent was late and my store wasn’t open seven hours every day. My beef was that everybody in the block … had the same issue. They singled me out when I asked my questions.”

Peters says she made a substantial investment in Vendor Way. She served as the Main Street’s treasurer. After the demise of the program, she started another merchant association called “Harambe: The Church Street Collective.” Her ultimate goal was to reapply for Main Street status. She says she requested a meeting with Lynum to ask about reinstating the program, but was ignored.

Peters’ trouble with the city started in November 2008. On Nov. 20, city real estate manager Laurie Botts-Wright e-mailed Peters. After Peters had posed a number of questions about its plans for Vendor Way, a city official named Frank Usina stopped by her store, Botts-Wright wrote. Usina found the store closed and a sign out front instructing patrons that Peters was available by appointment only. Moreover, Botts-Wright wrote, both Peters’ cell and home phones were out of service.

“Also, as we have discussed in the past, your lease requires you to have minimum business hours,” Botts-Wright wrote. “I need to see what your plans are for reopening your business and maintaining regular business hours in accordance with the terms of your lease.”

All of those particular charges are false, Peters says. Her store was open – maybe not seven hours a day, but it was open. Her phone lines were on. Whole Foods and QVC were reviewing her product lines, she wrote. Yes, she had sought information, but only because the city’s plans for Vendor Way seemed to lean more toward an entertainment district than a retail zone.

In subsequent e-mails obtained by Orlando Weekly, Peters told the city that she had a part-time employee to mind the store while she was away – usually, she wrote, doing the kinds of community activities her lease also mandated – but that as traffic slowed, she had to let her worker go.

“I am doing everything I can to make change occur on this block and particularly in my store,” she wrote.

After her lease was terminated, Peters complained to the mayor’s office. Eventually, she got a meeting with Mayor Buddy Dyer and top officials, who said they didn’t know Peters wanted her lease renewed.

“The mayor said, ‘Work it out,’ and left,” Peters recalls.

But that never happened. Peters says she was told by city officials that she had “burned too many bridges” to come back. If she couldn’t find another location from which to run her business, she’d be violating the terms of her MEBA grant, which required her to stay in business for three years.

Did me dirty’

On a recent Friday afternoon, Johnson’s Diner is buzzing with activity. The soul food restaurant, a favorite of the downtown-lawyer set, is quickly filling up; seated patrons munch on catfish and fried okra. Of all the businesses on Vendor Way, Johnson’s Diner seems to be easily the most successful.

Walking east on Church Street from Johnson’s Diner, the rest of Vendor Way is a virtual ghost town. There’s nary a soul inside the various shops and stores, and hardly any foot traffic on the sidewalk. It’s impossible to see any business surviving like this.

“If they can hold on,” city spokeswoman Allebaugh says, “the events center will bring a whole new clientele down there.”

But they do have to hold on through what will be lean years and hope that they’re well-positioned once the famine ends. The city says that in lieu of the Main Street program, it’s offering those businesses “technical assistance,” which is help with the basics of running a business. After that, and after the events center (hopefully) breathes new life into Parramore, Allebaugh says the city will reconsider adding Parramore to its Main Street programs.

In June, Peters rented a storefront in Ivanhoe Village, and planned to reopen Sakilé. But before that could happen, her father became ill and passed away in July. Before he died, Peters says, he told her, “Don’t give up on your store.”

“I kind of did give up on my store, but I’m not going to go out without telling what happened,” Peters says. “They flat-out did me dirty.”

jbillman@orlandoweekly.com
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