Englewood Awakens

By Hannah Wallace August 31, 2004

When it comes to hidden treasures, Englewood's Dearborn Street has a clutch of them-like a bed designed by Josephine Bonaparte with its original toile canopy. That particular treasure is at the Blue Pineapple, a shop filled with antiques that owners Peter and Barbara Matson spend every summer in Europe collecting.

The Matsons, who own a 7,500-square-foot building in the heart of Dearborn Street, are part of the growth that began five years ago when Sarasota County created a Community Redevelopment Area and a 5,465-acre Tax Increment Financing District here, which has yielded $585,000 to date. Along with $2 million raised by a one-cent sales tax increase, that money has slowly helped transform these previously nondescript blocks close to Lemon Bay with angled parking, streetscaping and brick pavers.

"It has dramatically changed," says Chris Davis, Englewood CRA coordinator. She says an average of six visitors a day stop by her downtown office to make inquiries about the area. "For the past two years, there has been a zero-percent vacancy rate. There's been a change in the type of tenants and in the longevity of the businesses."

Two businesses have already taken advantage of a CRA-initiated Storefront Improvement Program that gives them zero-percent interest loans and matching grants of up to $15,000 to improve their facades to fit the Old Florida architecture theme selected for the district. Davis says 10 other businesses have applied to participate. A marketing campaign is also under way in local and regional media. The county also spent $845,000 on an acre of Lemon Bay-front property and an additional parcel linking that piece to downtown. Plans for the waterfront property range from a sculpture garden to possible public water access.

When Realtor Jack McCarthy of Coldwell Banker Sunstar Realty started working here 17 years ago, Dearborn Street was a stretch of service stations and car repair shops. Now these have been replaced by antique shops such as the Blue Pineapple, fine art galleries such as Lemon Tree and Grass Roots Galleries, and upscale studios such as Adamson Artworks. Rental rates are at $8 or $9 a square foot, up 10to12 percent from last year, says McCarthy. When one 1,200-square-foot property was offered for rent recently, six offers came in three days.

Visitors can pick from three restaurants and a brew pub, and merchants stop at Jitters for their morning lattes. Residents from tony Boca Grande and laid-back Manasota Key stroll here. The Rotary Club of Englewood's 23rd annual art fair drew 15,000 people over a March weekend, and last year added a winter art fair. Second and fourth Saturdays, when shops stay open late and there's free live music, draw up to 1,000 on a balmy spring night.

CRA advisory board vice chair John Fellin, who owns an electronic manufacturing business in Englewood, says the CRA is also studying the area to see what types of businesses should fill the properties in downtown Englewood, and what incentives would bring private investment here. "In the long run, the ultimate success of the downtown area will be dependent on the appropriate mix of businesses here," says Fellin. 

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