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West Park Village Town Center: a Looming Ghost Town?

In recent years, the West Park Town Center, at the intersection of Montague Street and Linebaugh Avenue, has been notable not for its store openings.

It’s seen a stream of store closings.

In the last two years, a fruit fondue establishment opened and closed within months.

Starbucks, arguably the commercial center’s anchor, built a new establishment in the Costco plaza. After months of denied rumors about its West Park location, it shuttered in February, its windows quickly covered with brown paper.

In June Donna and John Woelfel, Proprietors of The Olive Tree, would have celebrated its fifth anniversary. On May 2, the couple sent their regulars an email. “Over the past eight months circumstances at West Park Village have deteriorated to the point that it was extremely difficult to continue operating our business. As a result, we decided that it was in our best interests to move on and focus our efforts on our Wesley Chapel store.”

Now two other proprietors, Southern Bay Bakery and Painting With a Twist, admit to struggles. Jennifer Bobrovetski, owner of Painting With a Twist, says they’ll be unable to renew their lease next summer unless something significantly changes. “If this is not the kind of business that Westchase is interested in supporting, than we just won’t make it,” she stated, pointing out she has as many customers from Oldsmar as she does her surrounding community.

On social media, theories about the closures abounded in recent months. The rents are too high, some argued, blaming Westchase Community Development District (CDD) assessments on the properties. Some, including proprietors, pointed to the lack of community support. Others flat out blamed Starbucks for playing spoiler.

Starbucks: An Outsized Impact

Getting anyone to talk on the record about Starbucks’ departure was a challenge, yet every one of the struggling businesses placed a good portion of the blame for the town center’s recent struggles on the coffee shop’s relocation – and suggested Starbucks’ refusal to fully vacate the premises was placing a drag on the center’s other tenants.

Katrina Williams of Carroll Management’s West Park Town Center leasing office observed in late May, “Starbucks has us in limbo right now.”  She added, “They’re still paying rent on that space.”

It was a shrewd move for Starbucks. By keeping out coffee shop competitors who have expressed interest in the space, it compelled Westchase folks looking for their caffeine fix to go elsewhere, many of them to Starbucks’ new drive-through in the Costco Plaza.

With their lease still intact, Starbucks also directly impacts sales at Southern Bay Bakery

“Because of the lease, we can only do 10 percent in coffee sales in a month,” stated the bakery’s owner, Haylee Beach Shaddock. Beach Shaddock added the Starbucks’ lease forbid other businesses in the center from selling espresso-based drinks.

“To my understanding, Starbucks would like to do that until 2021,” she said.

Beach Shaddock added, “The leasing office is trying to do everything they can.” She added, “Hopefully the leasing office will have the space back at the end of this month. And the coffee exclusivity that Starbucks had will be gone.”

The ability to sell more coffee and espresso drinks, she said, would be key to her bakery’s survival.

Carroll’s West Park Property Manager, Clint Snouwaert, who was named the leasing center’s manager in January, stated he was unable to comment on the matter but acknowledged the leasing center was working to exercise its right to reclaim the vacant anchor space despite Starbucks paying the rent. “I really was told not to speak on this,” he said, adding that he might have news about a new tenant for the space later in June.

Snouwaert added, referring to Starbucks, “Even before they were moving out, we were working on a solution for it.” He stated that the solution has taken time but the leasing office understands the importance of filling the anchor spot. “We know it’s good for the other retailers. We know it’s good for the residents,” he said. “We’re working to get it filled as soon as possible.”

For John Woelfel, Starbucks’ closing was the straw that broke the camel’s back. “That killed our foot traffic,” he said. “That business was critical to that community. That gave us a lot of exposure.”

“A lot of regulars in the area stopped coming,” Beach Shaddock agreed. “They’ve slowly come back but they’re not around as much.”

One rumor Snouwaert wanted to tamp down concerning Starbucks departure?

The leasing office didn’t raise Starbucks’ rent. The company had a number of years left in its 10-year lease.

Other Tenant Complaints

Woelfel stated he regretted their plans to expand The Olive Tree by opening a gourmet market. The plan was to get an alcohol permit to permit the store to sell select wines. When the couple signed the lease, Woelfel said they were told the parcel was wet-zoned. When the couple went to get a county permit, they discovered it wasn’t. Woelfel added that when they approached Carroll Management and requested they share the costs of wet-zoning the parcel, the leasing office declined. With Publix opening a liquor store and the newly opened Costco offering a wide selection of wines, the Woelfels decided it made no sense to spend the money for the alcohol permit.

Woelfel added another frustration about the leasing office. “The maintenance was just horrible. When you called to get something done, nothing was ever done with it,” he said.

When WOW asked Catherine Ansel of Couture, the other anchor store owner in the center about the town center’s maintenance, she initially responded with a frustrated grunt. “Ugh,” she said, before adding. “It’s fine. Let’s just say that.”

When asked if she thought the center’s maintenance was handled well, Beach Shaddock “Yes and no. Some things they move very quickly on. Other things they do not move very quickly on.” The bakery owner noted that her exterior commercial sign broke last year when they attempted to change the bakery’s name on it. “We still don’t have a sign,” she said. “Things like that are just a little frustrating.”

Snouwaert, however, insisted his office strives to be responsive. “The only complaint I’ve got that I’m working on this week is old signage issues that need to be removed,” he said. “I don’t get a lot of complaints about maintenance issues.” He added, “Most of the concerns are about the vacant Starbucks space. We’re more than happy to fix things.”

Woelfel also said that Carroll Management, which owns many residential apartment properties across the U.S., lacks experience with commercial centers as most of Carroll’s complexes don’t have them. For one, Woelfel said, he was frustrated that the center never advertised or promoted the center and its businesses.

Snouwaert acknowledged that few of Carroll’s properties have a commercial component. “We primarily focus on residential. This property is unique in that it has a retail factor,” he said, adding “This is one of our larger properties.”

Their West Park Village office manages over 600 apartments in addition to the retail space.

Addressing Woelfel’s complaint that the company didn’t advertise the complex, Snouwaert said they did promote the businesses among their apartment residents – an assertion Beach Shaddock agreed was accurate. Snouwaert said that Carroll also advertises its apartments and townhomes. As for the businesses? “To be honest, I believe they are responsible for their advertising,” said Snouwaert. “We’re a landlord that manages space. We don’t run the businesses. Each of the retailers is responsible for running and managing their business.”

Rents: Are They Too High?

WOW inquired whether the Westchase CDD’s assessments led to higher rents on the commercial properties but not a single tenant interviewed said that rents were out-of-line for the area or too high. In addition to rent, tenants pay taxes and maintenance fees, referred to CAM fees. All said the total commercial fees, tax included, came to just over $30 per square foot annually.

Only Beach Shaddock observed that the rent she was paying for her Westchase location was markedly higher than what she’s paying for her St. Petersburgh bakery.

“It’s high,” Ansel said of her rent, “but I think it’s comparable to other nice plazas.”

For comparison, Woelfel stated that their current commercial space in farther out Wesley Chapel is equally expensive. He downplayed the rent issue as the cause, pointing to the failed expansion as the real financial burden. “It definitely was a mistake,” he said.

Yet, it’s a commonly heard observation – that Westchase CDD assessments push rents so high that they put undue pressure on the tenants and leave Westchase retail space vacant.

To test the assumption, WOW spoke to Tom Brubaker, a commercial Realtor with Tam-Bay. “They’ve had this problem in this center before,” he said. “When the market crashed, they lowered rents. And,” he added, referring to existing tenants paying higher rents, “that pissed off everyone in the complex.”

From Brubaker’s perspective, Carroll Management might temporarily prefer vacant spots than hold a fire sale.

Yet an annual square foot rental price of just over $30 doesn’t appear to put the West Park Village Town Center’s rents out of line with nearby complexes – even those whose owners don’t pay CDD assessments.

Brubaker shared typical rents in comparable complexes with retail stores. Among those that are also assessed by the Westchase CDD are the western part of Westchase Town Center, holding  5/3 Bank, Jersey Mike’s and Chipotle. That area charges $34 per square foot plus an additional unknown CAM charge. The eastern side of Westchase Town Center, holding Maloney’s and World of Beer, charges $29 plus an estimated $9 per square foot CAM fee.  That’s breaks $40 per square foot, tax included.

The least expensive CDD-assessed retail strip?

The Village Plaza at Westchase, the home of Mother’s, Surf Shack, Froyo and Surf Shack, charges $21 with an $8.50 square foot CAM. With the 6.8 sales tax on commercial rents, even this plaza reaches an equivalent to rents reportedly paid in West Park Village Town Center.

What about non-CDD assessed plazas’ rents?

According to Brubaker, Citrus Park Crossing, the complex between Firestone and DQ and holding BedPros and AT&T, has square foot rents of $24 annually, plus a $6.48 square foot CAM, an equivalent rent when tax is included.

Citrus Falls Commons, the home of Grille 54 and Mellow Mushroom, has a square foot rent of $20 plus $7.76 CAM. With tax, it comes in just shy of $30. The Winn Dixie shopping center at Race Track Road and Nine Eagles Drive has rents of $27.48 per square foot, CAM and tax included. Yet it’s surrounded by markedly fewer homes within a five-mile radius.

The only noticeably lower Northwest retail plaza with lower rents lies adjacent to the abandoned Sweetbay on the corner of Sheldon Road and Linebaugh Avenue. The home of Focus Nails, Super Cuts and My Gym, its rents are $20.16 per square foot, everything included. Yet its tenants have to contend with a perpetually empty anchor store that, Brubaker mentioned, Sweetbay was purposefully keeping vacant to reduce local competition.

In short, CDD assessments don’t appear to be significantly increasing West Park Village Town Center’s rents over rents in nearby retail plazas.

Community and Business Support

“As the owner of Painting with a Twist, we are struggling,” said Bobrovetski. “And whenever a business closes, everyone is so quick to say it's because the rent is high.  But in reality, it's not the rent. It's the community.”

“If the community doesn't support its small businesses, it doesn't really matter how much the rent is, they aren't going to survive,” said Bobrovetski.  “Westchase residents need to support their small businesses and in return those small businesses support the community,” she said, emphasizing their support of local schools and charitable groups.

Woelfel also pointed to a lack of community support – not the CDD fees – as prompting the closing of The Olive Tree. “I felt the Westchase community let us down,” he said. Woelfel detailed their investments to create a high-class retail environment. “It was done the right way. It just wasn’t supported.”

He added that cooperation in the center itself from fellow businesses was lacking, saying that commercial owners  once tried to have a tenants’ meeting but only six of the 20 business owners bothered to show up. This lack of cooperation, Woelfel said, made it hard to plan events, a challenge worsened by the CDD’s refusal to allow businesses to use the Montague Street green for for-profit events and the leasing office’s penchant for last-minute event planning.

When asked if she felt that Westchase residents supported local businesses enough, Beach Shaddock, said, “Yes, in a way. But I think they could do a little better supporting local businesses.”

While Beach Shaddock acknowledged she needs to do a better job at getting word of her bakery out, she said there were great benefits supporting local bakeries over commercial bakeries in supermarkets like Publix. “You’re buying quality, fresher ingredients from us.”

If residents thought about it more, she added, they’d feel uncomfortable with the fact that commercial bakeries leave things like cupcakes with buttercream frosting – supposedly made with butter that requires refrigeration – out on display for hours. “If you are wanting to pump your body with preservatives, go to Publix and fill your body with their cakes and cupcakes,” she said.

Does Carroll Management see a problem with community support of the complex’s stores? After some thought, Snouwaert said that he’s only been on site since January, but he’s actually been impressed with the number of community events he’s seen that use the town center as their focus, like The Great West Chase and the Westchase Charitable Foundation’s Santa Parade. “I think there is more in the Westchase community than other communities,” he said.

Town Center Success

It’s not uncommon for some Westchase residents, upon seeing a new business open up in Westchase commercial areas, to trade snarky estimates on how long they think the business will last. “We would have customers who would come in and tell us, ‘You’ll never make it here. This a revolving door here.’” said Woelfel. “How would you like to hear that?”

Woelfel added with frustration, “And to have that happen to us five years later and see the people who left and see it become a revolving door.”

Yet there are tenants that have clearly defied the revolving door. Catch Twenty-Three is an original tenant as are Bright Eyes Vision Care, the YMCA as well as a financial advisor and dentist. Woof! Here It Is, a pet supply and grooming store has been open eight years (with a previous dog store and bakery open in the same spot two years prior to that).

Meanwhile Couture Designer Resale Boutique, the town center’s other anchor on the corner of Montague and Linebaugh, is also an original tenant. Its owner moved her smaller store to the larger anchor spot when her business grew in West Park Village. Owner Catherine Ansel consigns previously owned designer apparel, shoes, bags and jewelry. Last year, she said, the store hit $3 million in sales and now has 10 employees, with 55-60 percent of her business done online.

“We have a lot of repeat customers from over the years and we have new customers. We’re pretty busy most of the time,” Ansel said. “People come from all over the place.”

Half of her rented space customers don’t even see. She reserves it for stock, preparing and shipping packages and even a photo room, to get pictures of her consigned items for posting online.

A look at her Internet presence makes clear Ansel has mastered online promotion and advertising. Yet when asked what she attributes her success in the town center to, she said, “Merchandise and service. We offer luxury at a discounted price.”

Ansel added, “We reach out to the community very often. We do parties. And we do marketing online.”

A steady advertising budget is also key to her business’ success. “We also spend tons of money so everyone can find us.”

“We’ve grown over the years and keep growing,” said Ansel. “We’re very fortunate.”

What Next?

What will the post Starbucks West Park Town Center look like?

Late in May, Snouwaert said, Carroll Management approved the paint swatches that were applied around the former Starbucks entrance some weeks ago. That pattern will eventually cover the entire retail complex with Catch 23 and Irish 51 perhaps featuring different end-cap colors.

The exterior of the 600 apartments will also see repainting, with Snouwaert stating he hoped that the commercial storefronts would begin being repainted around the third week of June (after WOW deadline).

As for what might fill the empty storefronts?

“I do know there’s interest in some of those spaces,” said Snouwaert, “but I can’t say who or what or timelines or anything like that.”

Snouwaert added some good news. He acknowledged that there is interest in the Starbucks spot. And he promised he will announce the new tenant as soon as he is able.

In the meantime, the business owners in West Park Town Center invite residents to stop by – because, they say, it’s in your interest too.

“If you don’t support small businesses, then you have a big ghost town,” Bobrovetski said. “And then it affects your real estate values. I think it has such a domino effect, and I don’t think people realize it.”

By Chris Barrett, Publisher

WOW thanks Tom Brubaker of Tam-Bay Realty for sharing the commercial real estate data used in this article.

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