The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted thousands of Florida businesses. Yet, one bay area community is turning pandemic-related challenges into opportunities.
Wednesday, the 400 and 500 blocks of Cleveland Street were rebranded as “The District.” It’s part of a new identity born out of the pandemic.
For years, downtown Clearwater businesses have shared a vision to close down the downtown portion of Cleveland Street to cars, allowing outdoor dining and live music. Yet, it took the COVID-19 crisis to turn those visions into reality.
Carolyn Bradham, the owner of Kara Lynn’s Kitchen, couldn’t be happier. “This is a game changer. This is an identity we’ve created out of nothing,” she explained.
Back in May, Clearwater city leaders closed the 400 and 500 blocks of Cleveland Street to cars to allow more outdoor dining. The results blew away all expectations as hundreds of people flocked to the downtown area to eat outside socially distanced from other groups and enjoy live music.
Scott Sousa, the owner of Clear Sky on Cleveland St. says nearly every business is now back to their pre-pandemic sale levels. “Most of the businesses down here are up in sales from what they were just a few months ago and it’s kind of unheard of with the pandemic still going on,” he added.
“People love coming down here, they love the safety of being able to eat outside, have some music and return to a sense of normalcy in the middle of this stress of the pandemic,” Bradham added.
The change has been so successful that Clearwater leaders are looking at long-term traffic closures on Cleveland Street. Right now, the goal is to keep the 400 and 500 blocks of Cleveland Street closed to traffic through at least mid-January but business owners hope it can become a permanent staple making them an outdoor destination like the St. Pete Pier, Sparkman Wharf in Tampa or downtown Dunedin.
There are still some kinks to work out like ensuring fire and police can still access the area, and making it ADA compliant, but business leaders hope their story can inspire innovation in other entrepreneurs, despite the challenges we’re all up against.
Frank Hibbard, the Mayor of Clearwater, also believes a permanent street closure would work well alongside the $50 million Imagine Clearwater project, which will bring a covered amphitheatre, parks and gardens to the downtown waterfront.
“We think that this has been a wonderful experiment. There’s live music here Thursday through Saturday and the merchants are doing well because of it. We’re built up on a bluff overlooking the water and where the new Imagine Clearwater project will be,” he said.
The expanded dining area has also helped businesses that don’t sell food or drinks. Marlene Rose is an artist with a studio on Cleveland Street and says she has noticed a difference in the number of people coming into her studio.
“More people are walking around, they’re here and seeing what downtown Clearwater has to offer. I think it’s been really great for businesses,” she said with a smile.