Flourish or die?: Business owners, residents share ideas to revitalize struggling Town Center

Matt Algarin
As the owners of Flutterby Antiques, Michele and Ron Sandstead would like to see changes made along Main Street, in hopes of revitalizing the micro-economy.

As the city's Town Center Community Redevelopment Area continues to struggle with sagging property values and tremendous debt, its residents and business owners had no shortage of ideas on ways to improve the blighted CRA.

"I think we need to start making Main Street a center for activity," said Ron Sandstead, owner of Flutterby Antiques. "You can't get people to Main Street by threatening them; you have to make it fun."

During Wednesday night's Town Center CRA Advisory Committee meeting, stakeholders were invited to attend and were asked to share their experiences and opinions for the betterment of the town center. About a half dozen concerned parties attended the meeting.

For Sandstead and his wife Michele, who serves on the Town Center CRA-AC, business along Main Street can be hard to come by, and strict regulations by the city may be one of the guilty culprits.

"My wife and I have struggled getting people to Main Street for 11 years," he said.

"I think a lot of it has to do with signage," Sandstead added. "I think we should consider a banner (across the road) for Main Street. It would just get everyone's attention."

Tom Holt, who operates the Main Street Market with his wife Amy, told committee members that the number of visitors to the Saturday market has decreased by 40 percent since they opened a few months ago.

"We can't get people down there," he said. “We can't have signs... we're (the city) all about enforcement and prohibiting."

"It amazes me that we don't already have signs advertising what's on Main Street," he added. "What mechanisms are there in place to help bring in change"?

The simple solution for Holt was to use a portable electronic sign that could be placed at the Main Street and U.S. Hwy. 98 intersection. The sign would notify people that the market was taking place, in addition to any other activities that are under way on Main Street.

Comparing Destin's market to the Sunday farmer's market in Rosemary Beach, Holt said vendors can make about $500 in a weekend along 30A, while they are only making about $65 in Destin. He said it's clearly a "traffic issue."

And given the struggles of the market, Holt said he is unsure what the future looks like.

"It's either going to flourish or it's going to die a slow painful death," he said.

For developer Peter Bos, Main Street is in dire need of renovations, as it relates to ordinances and regulations that hamper those who may want to erect a commercial project. He said there are other areas of the city that are more attractive to developers at the moment, which doesn't help.

"Right now, if nothing changes, it's not going to be built on," he said. "What is it that we can do to start raising money for this road"?

After listening to the crowd, advisory committee chairman Joe Rector looked to his colleagues and told them the city had to take action sooner rather than later.

"We need to get the ball moving forward on this," he said.

Committee member Lockwood Wernet agreed with Rector, putting forth a series of recommendations, which all passed unanimously, that would help with some of the signage issues along Main Street, such as feather signs.

The committee recommended placing a static sign promoting the Main Street Market on the city's existing Town Center CRA sign at the intersection of Main Street and Hwy. 98, while also looking into the option of installing an electronic sign on the same structure.

At the suggestion of Rick Johnson, who is a co-owner of Merlin's Pizza, Wernet also recommended that the city's public works and public safety committee look into adding either numbers or letters that would designate streets and attractions for motorists, similarly to what is done in areas of Panama City Beach.

The final recommendation of the night was to create a seven-member blue ribbon panel that would be comprised of developers, citizens and business owners. The panel would be tasked with looking at additional ways to help revitalize the Town Center CRA, which is bounded on the north and east by Airport Road, on the south by U.S. 98, and on the west by Beach Drive, including the Downtown Destin and Shores Shopping Centers, as well as all property fronting Main Street between Harbor Boulevard and Airport Road.

As the meeting wrapped up, Rector urged residents of the Town Center to be part of the change.

"It would be awesome to get our (committee) seats filled and to get people at these meetings and involved," he said. "It's hard to know what everybody wants... public opinion is what helps sway things."

For Sandstead, there is no other place he would rather be than along Main Street, so if he has to take an active role to encourage change, he has no reservations.

"I've spent 11 years on Main Street and I want to see it work," he said.