Signs of Change

I bought a dresser from a junk store along Central; it cost me $15. I brought it home, covered it with shells and sand spray paint, and saved myself several hundred dollars. That was, of course, quite a few years ago. Today, Central Avenue is the place to find retro, vintage and hip things. Everyone knows that. Everyone knows, too, that you’re not finding any $15 dressers. Oh, you can find a myriad of ultra-cool things – old nautical things, repurposed furniture, dresses from 1947 –but what you no longer find on Central Avenue is bargains. You shop there knowing you’re getting unique items, not inexpensive ones.

Which is why it delighted me to realize Gulfport Boulevard has quietly started replacing Central Avenue as the place to find hidden treasures at a bargain. The Boulevard is not without its issues – namely, it’s a county road, which means Gulfport has minimal control over what the roadway looks like and no control over things like the speed limit or sidewalks. This, of course, poses a problem for businesses that found a great deal on rent but now find themselves saddled with rules about how they can get traffic to slow down to look at their merchandise.

While I appreciate the plight of these businesses, I appreciate, too, the concerns of residents. I do not envy the city council’s job of balancing the two, and I’m about to make it worse by adding my thoughts to everything. Bear in mind, I want to see the newly named Strip succeed, because I enjoy the shock of delight when I happen into one of these “junk” shops and find anything but.

Some of these storefronts look fantastic; Boulevard Shoppes, Habana Cafe, Caldwell Realty and a host of others have invested in making their properties look top-notch. Take a bike ride, stroll, or drive down the street; with the exception of the first business I mentioned, the best maintained businesses are the ones that have also survived the longest. It’s not very scientific to point to that one factor and attribute it to their success, but I wonder if the commitment to investing in the property translates into a business owner who is committed to Gulfport in a larger way.

Some of the businesses, though, appear to be trying to do things on the cheap. Our sign code – which reads like a trig textbook, by the way – pleases me. The only way it could please me more is if the city restricted signs further, but I’m in favor of a Coral Springs-style sign code, which would put all our permanent signs close to the ground (called monument style) rather than billboard-style. Left to me, I’d change the code so that businesses could have wall signs and monument signs only.

And that’s the thing: while businesses can’t have trashy, hand-lettered posterboards, more than one “open” flag, or those low-class fluttering inflatable men, they can have a real sign, such as the one Caldwell has, or like the one Boulevard Shoppes built. What I don’t understand is why certain businesses, instead of attempting to make the city look cheap with advertising gimmicks, don’t invest in tasteful monument signs.

What I suspect certain businesses may not understand is that Gulfport has one chance to make a good impression on people passing through, and what impression people have of the city will be formed, in part, by how those businesses choose to represent themselves. Neon flashing open signs, handwritten posterboard, and a million flags don’t exactly make me want to stop and explore the town. Now, think about how monument signs or other artistically styled permanent signs would look to people driving through Gulfport. Of course, those sort of signs cost more than the ones some of these businesses want council to allow. I don’t profess to know much about business, but I do know that if you can’t afford a sign from a local sign shop, perhaps your business isn’t as viable as it could be.

The city is not without responsibility here: Perhaps the time has come for our mayor, who had to do battle with the county to get two crosswalks, could work his political magic once again to get better streetscaping, a dedicated center turn lane, and, perhaps, city ownership of the road. I don’t know if that’s even possible, but I do believe our mayor could start having those discussions. Little known fact: When our city manager worked for St. Pete Beach, he oversaw the streetscaping of Blind Pass Road. Go take a look; wouldn’t palm trees and sea grass down the middle of Gulfport Boulevard be a nice addition?

Most of Gulfport wants to support our businesses, but businesses need to support the community in return. The Strip has the potential to “wow” drivers; the reason they say “wow” is also within those business’power. Look at how trashy the St. Petersburg part of the same road looks; wouldn’t it be lovely to show a complete transformation when drivers crossed over into Gulfport?

I’m thrilled to see the types of businesses we’re seeing along the Strip. Gulfport Boulevard is at a crossroads, and how our council chooses to address the sign issue will determine whether we’re looking at the next Central Avenue or just another failed shopping district.

 

Hard Candy is an opinion column written by veteran reporter Cathy Salustri. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Gabber publishers, staff or advertisers. Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.

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