Downtown’s charm continues to attract shoppers, restaurant and bar patrons
BY ANTHONY WESTBURY
Downtown Fort Pierce, like many other historical neighborhoods, is always in a state of flux. Businesses come in, some succeed while others fall by the wayside.
In recent years, the newcomers have outnumbered the failures, although there have been a few of the latter. Fort Pierce seems to have reached a steady-state period after a period of heady growth. According to reports by local merchants, shoppers are still discovering the charms of downtown and its small, independent stores that offer one-off boutiques, gift stores and eating and drinking establishments not found anywhere else.
This year’s Shop Small Saturday bears out the trend. The event, held on Nov. 26, the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, is intended to draw shoppers to areas like downtown Fort Pierce.
In 2021, nationally, 51 million shoppers participated in Shop Small Saturday, spending $20 billion, according to the National Retail Federation.
Merchants’ hopes for an even better event in 2022 seem to have held up, according to reports by merchants.
Shop Small Saturday evolved out of a 2010 partnership between American Express, the nonprofit National Trust For Historic Preservation and the mayor of Boston.
Sales in 2021 set records, but the numbers were still below pre-pandemic levels. A Lending Tree survey last year found that 53% of the U.S. population knows at least one small business that was forced to close permanently due to COVID restrictions.
NUMBERS ARE UP
Downtown Fort Pierce merchants reported sales increases above last year’s event by between 10% and 15%. Some stores did even better than that.
“It was almost 17 % better than last year,” said Becky Demanuel of the gift store Chic & Shore Things on Second Street. “Actually, it’s my second-best day of the year [saleswise]. The [event] really is a boost for the downtown area.”
Karen DeVries, owner of Chaney’s House O’Flowers on the corner of Avenue A and Second Street, said her sales tripled from last year.
“I think the advertising and people wanting to shop local businesses [was the reason],” she explained. “We kept advertising on social media and I think that just brought more people downtown.”
Jan Russell of Sweets Jewelers on Avenue A, whose family has been in business in the same spot since 1926, noted that “Downtown was busy. It was like the old days.”
For Beryl Muise, owner of the gift store Notions & Potions on Second Street, Black Friday this year was even better than Shop Small Saturday. Muise recorded sales 40% higher than last year.
“I think more people want to support shopping small and I think [these numbers] prove it,” she said.
Muise said she has seen a steady stream of locals who patronize her store. She is also looking to even better times ahead.
“Everyone downtown is very, very excited for when King’s Landing comes,” Muise said. “The hotel will make a huge difference for us. We’re realizing that locals want to shop in their own community and I think all the planned new development will continue to help us.”
While a couple of downtown businesses have closed in the past year [Whirled Inc., a gift and art store, and Honey & Co., a women’s clothing boutique], they’ve either already been replaced or are about to be. Sarah Jane and Co. replaced Honey and Loup de Loup, near Chaney’s and Sweets Jewelers, has expanded into double the retail space.
Muise, who is active in the Downtown Business Association, reports that all downtown retail spaces are filled and that there’s a waiting list for new vendors. She also confirmed what national surveys have found regarding downtown shoppers and their needs.
“My customers are younger, many in their mid-30s — and they tell me they want to shop at night after eating dinner downtown.”
Dale Matteson of Audubon Development that is building King’s Landing on the former city electric plant site reports steady progress despite encountering one major delay since he gained city approval for the scale and design of his housing, commercial and hotel development.
Even though the site has been the subject of a federally funded Brownfield mitigation project a few years ago, which cost Fort Pierce Utilities Authority about $8 million, a massive amount of underground concrete foundations from the old plant have been discovered. Matteson is covering the cost of removal of the concrete for now, but hopes to gain reimbursement from the city.
The concrete, once removed, will form the basis of a large offshore underwater reef, Matteson said.
Meanwhile, the developer is pushing ahead on a small development of 10 townhomes at the northern end of the site. The model unit there sold recently for $1.5 million, Matteson said. He hopes that unit can be completed by the end of 2023 and that the full 10 units will be finished within 18 months. The remaining nine lots went up for sale on Jan. 1, he said.
Meanwhile, the hotel component is still on track. Matteson is awaiting permit approval before he can begin installing site infrastructure.
“I think by spring 2023 you’ll see the infrastructure [roads, utilities, etc.] going in,” he said.
The interest in potential buyers, Matteson said, has been fantastic. He said he has 157 reservations for 114 units and has firm commitments from six restaurant operators, plus three restaurants that will be part of the hotel.
And there’s a new trend coming to Fort Pierce.
“I guess the Treasure Coast has been busting for rooftop bars,” he noted with a chuckle. “It’s a great way for us to monetize unused space on the top of the tallest buildings. The bars will offer spectacular views.”
Another planned retail-commercial development in the early planning stages is a boat storage complex and residential and retail units on Fisherman’s Wharf, sited between the port to the north and downtown.
Developer Chris Pulli is hoping to revitalize the rundown waterfront area with a concierge boat storage operation, restaurants, bars and live music with his $76 million project.
Pulli said he hopes the development provides a safe, family-friendly waterfront destination. It will include a public boardwalk, free public dockage, as well as retail components. There will also be additional parking for both the development and as a way to alleviate the parking crunch experienced in downtown.
Pulli said he is committed to involving the community in his plan. “I’m trying to honor the area’s past and heritage,” he said. He also plans to add a mentoring and internship program that will involve students from Westwood High School and Forest Grove Middle School.
So, while downtown Fort Pierce awaits the arrival of giant new developments, which should boost the attractiveness of downtown for locals and visitors alike, business still looks great for established merchants in the city’s core.
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