Updated Jan. 2. Lakeland’s downtown has seen a surge in new restaurants, with six opening in the last year alone. It’s getting harder to find an empty storefront near Downtown’s Munn Park, but easier to find parking, thanks to a new valet system.
Julie Townsend, executive director of Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, says that lots of restaurants seem interested in moving downtown, and that’s a good thing. “Most of the businesses that are looking in downtown right now are restaurants,” Townsend says, “which is wonderful. We want to have a cluster of restaurants so that people see downtown as a destination for dining. We want them to come downtown and then decide where to eat, instead of picking a restaurant and then driving to that destination … The more restaurant choices you have and types of cuisine to choose from, the better for the district.”
The space between Linksters and Black & Brew, which has sat empty since Mexican restaurant Dona Maria closed in 2006, has been leased, according to Townsend. Also, the building that housed the restaurant Posto 9 has been purchased.
(Editor’s note: The sale was not yet listed on the Polk Property Appraiser’s website by Dec. 31. LkldNow was told that day that bankruptcy court documents list the buyer as Baron Management LLC. On Jan. 2, Baron President Cory Petcoff said his company terminated the contract on the property because “we were not able to make the numbers work.”)
The area is attracting restaurants even though downtown’s antiquated buildings make it an expensive renovation. With most buildings hailing from the first half of the 20th century, new tenants have to meet modern safety codes and conform with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA.) These renovations can include putting in elevators, widening doorways, or building firewalls between a restaurant and neighboring buildings.
“One of the joys of being in a downtown is also a pitfall, in the sense that these are old buildings and they’re mostly not to code,” Townsend says. “They’re mostly not ADA compliant, so those things have to be done. Then it’s a negotiation between the building owner and the tenant about who pays for those upgrades.”
Townsend says it’s generally easier for a retail business to move into an older building. The challenges Lakeland’s downtown faces, in regard to retail, is that there are just not enough places to put them. The owners of the gift shops, specialty stores and boutiques of downtown want to be in close proximity to each other, and to be in the center of the action.
Events like the Saturday farmers curb market or First Friday attract big crowds to downtown, and retailers want to be in that mix. That means they want to be around Munn Park, on Kentucky Avenue, Tennessee Avenue, or Main Street. Those spots are pretty much taken, and that’s limiting the number of stores, which in turn takes away potential customers. When people make the decision to drive downtown and find a parking space, they want to browse around, window shop, and spend some time downtown, Townsend says, and there has to be enough retail to entice them to do that. She says there are about 20 retail establishments right now, with a need for 10 to 20 more.
The number of restaurants, however, is probably at a critical mass, Townsend says. They’ve added about 800* customer seats downtown with the accompanying volume of car traffic. A new valet parking system is now in place to encourage customers to head downtown during their tightly-scheduled lunch hour, without worrying about parking. Drivers can drop off their car at the Munn Park parking lot, and text the valet to bring the car to them at a restaurant, office, or wherever they like. Townsend says it’s still too early to know if the valet parking has had any effect on downtown businesses, but she says she’s gotten positive feedback from customers.
Robin Sussingham is a reporter, producer and host at WUSF Public Media. “A Conversation with Julie Townsend” is a collaboration with WUSF and LkldNow. Readers can look forward to hearing the conversation soon on WUSF.
(Update Dec. 31, 2018 12:41 pm: Townsend corrected the number to 800. Her previous number included bar seats.)
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