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Photo by: Tim Freed - Brick-lined streets were once the bane of merchants, and now part of their success.
Winter Park / Maitland Observer Wednesday, Jun. 19, 2013 9 years ago

Bringing back the Avenue

Revival finally complete
by: Tim Freed Managing Editor

The Park Avenue of today thrives as Winter Park’s gem of business, arts and culture. Cozy coffee shops, unique boutiques and extravagant art galleries entice thousands of customers in search for exotic art, stylish clothes and delicious meals every day.

But 20 years ago, many wondered if the Avenue would survive.

Park Avenue is now 100 percent leased for the first time in 20 years, a far cry from the economic downturn that local merchants faced during the 1990s, when high rent and a struggling economy clashed with a streetscape project that cut down foot traffic.

Despite these past challenges, the more than 140 storefronts for shops and restaurants are now completely full.

“We’re thrilled with the amount of activity on Park Avenue,” said Patrick Chapin, president and CEO of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s nice to see the Avenue fill up.”

But Winter Park’s main shopping district looked much different than the brick-lined oasis of today. Cars drove over an asphalt road instead of brick, most of the restaurants lacked the open-air dining along the sidewalks, and many of the storefronts were empty – gaping holes in Winter Park’s cultural boulevard.

Timothy’s Gallery co-owner Jill Daunno saw the economic struggle firsthand, with her shop at one point sitting in between two empty storefronts.

“The major force behind creating empty storefronts was the combination of extremely high rents and a downturned economy,” Daunno said. “That is very difficult for independent shop keepers and store owners to combat.”

“Small momma-papa shops have a hard time with extremely high rents as soon as the customer base is not showing, because we don’t have deep pockets.”

Even after the economy picked back up, customers avoided the district in the late ‘90s because of another – literal – roadblock.

In 1997, Winter Park began a project to convert the asphalt street into a brick road. For more than three years, the number of shoppers plummeted because of the blocked roads.

Customers that did visit the avenue had to navigate through a network of wooden planks laid across the street to get to their favorite shop, making it difficult for customers to walk along the Avenue and wander into stores, cutting down a significant portion of buyers. The plank walkways forced shoppers to only go to stores they planned to visit.

Chamber Vice President Debra Hendrickson remembers the economic struggle that came with the streetscape project, as well as the response from the community.

“When you close up the street to do a streetscape, that’s going to cause some concern by the citizens that live in the area that shop on Park Avenue,” said Hendrickson, who owned a women’s clothing store on the avenue from 1986 to 1998. “They knew the stores were going to suffer through that when they closed the streets.”

Though the economic struggles punished the remaining shops along the Avenue, the economy slowly began to pick up, and customers returned after the streetscape was completed in 1999.

While the downturn claimed many local shops: Tuni, The Paper Shop, Panullo’s Italian Restaurant, Downeast-Orvis and Timothy’s Gallery that made it through the recession still call Park Avenue home today.

“There were certainly segments of businesses that knew how to weather the storm, that went through that streetscape and came out the other end ahead and continue to grow their business,” Hendrickson said. “The ones that were strong continued to be strong.”

Today’s merchants along the Avenue can expect even more customers once SunRail is completed within the next two years, Hendrickson said.

“That’s going to bring a lot of foot traffic to our business corridor,” Hendrickson said. “People will be able to come into Winter Park, hop off the train, shop in our businesses and then go home.”

The filled Avenue is not only a testament to the success of the merchants, but the numerous options that customers have to choose from as they indulge in the arts and culture of Winter Park, said Lambrine Macejewski, president of the Park Avenue Merchants Association.

“For us it’s super exciting,” Macejewski said. “It just gives more options to all of the people that come to the Avenue. They have more dining options now, they have more retailers and they have more places to go and things to do, so it’s just provides more variety.”

“I think it’s a win-win for everybody involved.”

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