FORT WALTON BEACH — Although several businesses have said goodbye to downtown in recent months, officials say the area continues to evolve as it waits for the possibility of a U.S. Highway 98 traffic solution.
The snail's-pace flow of traffic during the afternoon summer rush gives drivers a good, long look at the storefronts along U.S. 98. And those who take the route often may notice several changes to the business climate in recent weeks.
"New businesses open and other businesses close," Fort Walton Beach City Manager Michael Beedie. "It's been that way for years. We need to create a destination where people want to come to and not just pass through like they are now."
One of those businesses that may catch drivers' attention is the Suds N' Cinema remodel, a historic 1940s movie theater set to reopen sometime this month.
The Ratchet Hatchet, an attraction where customers throw knives while drinking booze, has relocated to a larger space beneath the Northwest Florida Ballet Academie on Perry Avenue. Its former location on U. S. 98 remains empty, as does the Bob's Bicycles next door.
The Wayne Patton Building, which has been on the market for months, is rumored to have been sold to a local attorney's office. The GOAT — Greatest of All Time — eatery and bar shut its doors without warning last week.
The Green Door Music Hall is planning to move to the larger Bob's Bicycle's building and a coming soon sign for Sugar Dough Doughnut Co. has been placed in the window of one of the vacant shops just to the west on U.S. 98.
Although downtown offers many services, entertainment and nightlife for locals and tourists, Beedie said at a recent meeting that very few of the 50,000 who drive through the area each day actually stop.
Ted Corcoran, president/CEO of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, said the bumper-to-bumper traffic, lack of parking and difficult navigation frustrates drivers, which in turn makes them want to avoid the downtown.
"I think they blame downtown for the traffic woes, even though it isn't their fault," he said. "They maybe blame the businesses by association."
A solution, according to many business owners, city officials and downtown residents, lies with the approval of the long-sought plan to reroute downtown traffic around the Indian Temple Mound.
The completion of a feasibility study would be the first step in the so-called “around the mound” project. Beedie said that study should be completed in the next nine to 12 months.
If approved, construction would begin in almost another decade, Beedie said.
"The diversion of 98 is the most amazing transformational project ever for downtown Fort Walton Beach," Corcoran said. "Once we determine if it's feasible, then downtown will start preparing for the magic of no cars and the strolling marketplace the majority of people are dreaming about.
"If the businesses can hold on during the transformation, they will be rewarded 20 fold for the business potential. Hold on, folks. Hold on."
Until then, Beedie said there are small steps the city can take to help the traffic and parking issues, like stopping left turns off of some of the roads that cause congestion.
There was also, and maybe still is, hope for a public parking garage at the Landmark Center — a planned $51 million, more than 150,000-square-foot development featuring a hotel, shops, offices, restaurants, condos and a multi-story, private/public parking garage on the northwest corner of Perry Avenue and U.S. Highway 98. The development, however, is long-planned and oft-delayed.
Jayme Nabors, a downtown developer who is also in favor of the around the mound route, said the area already is attracting more folks despite the traffic woes. Nabors said plans to upgrade Fort Walton Landing will also be a major attraction. Construction at the park should begin by July 4th, according to Beedie.
Some downtown locations, such as the GOAT building, Nabors said, may just need to be restructured into smaller parcels to make room for different types of leasers.
Terri Harrison, a downtown resident who enjoyed a cup of coffee with her husband at Maas coffee shop Monday, said a record store, smoothie shop, vegan restaurants and vintage stores are what she believes would succeed in those locations.
"A lot of people don't know what exists here because there is not a lot of advertising downtown," she said. "Downtown needs more diverse restaurants and better shops. People will stop if they have multiple things to reach. If they can eat, drink coffee, see music, shop for some records, buy a bathing suits, go to yoga. If everything is here then everyone will stop. The right businesses need to come in."