By Jeff Louderback
Storefronts in downtown Dunedin are stirring with activity on a Saturday afternoon in December. The Christmas parade is later in the day, and thousands of visitors are expected. The tree-lined streets were crowded for the monthly Dunedin 2nd Friday Wine/Art Walk the previous evening.
So many of the merchants have experienced little sleep.
“As long as people continue to visit us, we can occasionally last with a little sleep here and there,” Patti Coleman said with a laugh. Coleman is the owner of The Enchanted Branch Gift Gallery on Main Street in downtown Dunedin, and she also owns The Candy Bar, a candy shop on Broadway.
Twenty years ago, there was little reason to venture to downtown Dunedin. It was like many downtowns in small town America, struggling because of the emergence of sprawling shopping centers, malls and stand-along big box stores. Today, the area in downtown Dunedin, located a short walk from the marina and St. Joseph Sound, is a bustling destination that attracts residents across the Gulf Coast and tourists in nearby beach towns.
Visitors peruse antique stores, specialty boutiques, gift shops and art galleries; dine at cafes; and savor cups of java at coffee shops. The Pinellas Trail, a former railroad that is now a paved linear park, winds through downtown and is frequented by skaters, walkers and bicyclists.
Fueled by an organized downtown merchants association, downtown Dunedin is a haven for special events year-round. There are monthly happenings like the 2nd Friday Wine/Art Walk and weekly events such as the Dunedin Green Market. Larger gatherings, like Mardi Gras in February and Dunedin Wines the Blues in November, also attract regulars and newcomers to this sanctuary of one-of-a-kind shops and kitschy eateries.
“It is a challenge for any downtown area to compete with the malls and big box stores, but interestingly what differentiates us and makes us a destination is the fact you can find shops and businesses here that you can’t find at the mall,” Gregory Brady, who owned and operated Gregory’s Hair Salon for 18 years before selling it in early December 2010 to focus on his special events business.
“You won’t find any character, ambience and sense of community at Walmart,” Brady added. “You see it along the streets and around the shops in downtown Dunedin. This place has energy that most small town downtowns lack.”
Brady is the charismatic president of the Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association, an organization that spearheads a myriad special events that attract visitors. Twenty years ago, a group of store owners worked together to host the first Mardi Gras in downtown Dunedin. It was so successful that they formed the Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association and brainstormed for other events.
The cooperation among merchants is a key reason why the area thrives, Keith Becker believes. Becker opened Broadway Deli last fall in a space on Broadway next to Dunedin Beads, which is owned by his wife Robbie Sheehan.
“People thought we were crazy to open a restaurant in this economy, but we felt there was a need for a deli downtown, so we saw the chance to fill a niche,” Becker said. “Downtown Dunedin is a success story because the merchants work together to make it a destination and to give people a reason to return time after time.”
Initiatives like the multitude of special events and the development of the Pinellas Trail have created valuable exposure. The Jolly Trolley, which is based in Clearwater, now serves Dunedin, connecting it with Clearwater and Tarpon Springs.
“The Jolly Trolley has helped because it brings people from the beach who otherwise might not drive here. And the Pinellas Trail is important since bicyclists discover us,” Sheehan said. “The challenge is bringing people here. Once people explore downtown Dunedin for the first time, they usually return.”
The merchants association is adamant that downtown maintain its ambience of independent businesses that give the streets an eclectic feel, Brady says.
“We have been able to keep rent reasonable in the downtown area by ensuring that there are just independent businesses,” he explained. “If Old Navy opened a location downtown, then it would likely spur property owners to increase their prices, and that would damage the landscape of downtown.”
Most businesses are owner-operated, which translates to attentive and friendly customer service, Brady believes. Several downtown merchants have opened other stores, demonstrating a commitment to the area’s long-term future.
Coleman opened Enchanted Branch a week after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. When she saw a need for a candy shop downtown, she added The Candy Bar in 2009. Tina Avila is another business owner whose present and future is deeply rooted in downtown Dunedin. She opened Casa Tina on Main Street in 1992 and then introduced Pan y Vino next door in 2008. Pan y Vino offers light plates, wines, craft beers and brick oven pizza.
“Instead of opening another Casa Tina in another city, we decided to invest further in downtown and start two new businesses with different specialties,” Avila said. “It is beneficial for all downtown merchants when new businesses open that offer something different. The more variety there is here, the more customers we will attract downtown.”