The shelves inside the Bed, Bath & Beyond in Market Square at Tampa Palms, once filled with kitchenware, bed sheets, towels and candles, have been laid bare.
Yellow papers were hung in the final days, declaring that what once occupied the shelves were now 50- or 75-percent off. All that remained, it seemed, were cell phone chargers and knickknacks destined for your junk drawer.
But now, it’s all gone.
Another New Tampa store, another big business closing.
In recent months, a number of high-profile and seemingly popular local stores have closed up shop in the 33647 zip code. In stark contrast, a few miles north, across the Hillsborough-Pasco county line, Wesley Chapel continues to grow and expand at a breakneck pace.
So, what’s happening in New Tampa? Or rather, what’s not happening?
At Market Square — which is still anchored by BJ’s Wholesale Club and located on Commerce Palms Dr. — three “big box” stores have closed in the past two years alone.
HH Gregg, Staples and now Bed Bath & Beyond leave behind 79,471 square feet of now-vacant retail space.
Elsewhere in New Tampa, restaurants like Casa Ramos in Tampa Palms, Ruby Tuesday’s and Dairy Queen on Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. have closed in the last year, and right next to old Dairy Queen, Oakley’s Grille has been sold twice.
While the Dairy Queen space is re-opening soon as a Jamaican restaurant, other local businesses have not been so quick to turn around.
The old Romano’s Macaroni Grill site has twice been reborn as a Mexican restaurant, but neither lasted a year. Behind Oakley’s Grille, the old Sweetbay Supermarket (next to Home Depot) has been vacant since 2013 and is now merely an eyesore with a parking lot that serves mostly as a motel for semi tractor trailers.
Further north, Beef O’Brady’s on Cross Creek Blvd. at Morris Bridge is empty two years after closing, and the old MidFlorida bank has laid dormant even longer.
Even non-chain restaurants, like popular Spanish restaurants Café Olé and Las Palmas, have shut down over the past six months.
“It’s not a joke,” says Said Iravani, an engineering and environmental consultant who has lived in New Tampa for 17 years. “I think there are a few problems.”
One of the most prominent, he says, is a lack of collective spirit, that begins in the local neighborhoods but extends to the commercial areas. New Tampa’s offerings also may be growing stale, he says, thanks to poor design and a lack of connectivity.
With the exception of popular smaller chain restaurants like Glory Days, Ciccio Cali and Stonewood Grill & Tavern, and the popular Fat Rabbit Pub, Iravani thinks better choices for a day of shopping or a night out for dinner currently exist across the county line in Wesley Chapel, which wasn’t always so.
“We seem disjointed,” says Iravani, who also thinks a lack of a town center, poor street exposure and lack of a destination such as a mall or something comparable to Florida Hospital Ice Center has created a series of one-stop-and-go plazas along BBD.
District 7 Tampa City Council member and Hunter’s Green resident Luis Viera, who has long argued for a less fragmented community and business district, agrees.
“You don’t see (as many failing businesses) necessarily in South Tampa,” Viera says. “It’s a problem we need to address. This is a place with significant purchasing power. So why are retail and commercial not lasting here? We should try to get to the root of that.”
Viera is quick to acknowledge that big-box stores around the country are struggling in the face of the growing trend towards e-commerce. Businesses like Ruby Tuesday, Staples and HH Gregg aren’t just closing in New Tampa, they are closing hundreds of locations nationwide.
Others, like Macy’s, JC Penney and Target, to name a few, have struggled as well in the face of the juggernaut called Amazon and other online sites.
“We need to be able to lure pioneers out to New Tampa,” he says.
Long-time Tampa Palms resident and current District 2 Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist says it’s not time to sound any alarms. He says the spate of closings in New Tampa is just part of the evolution of business and the economy, and brighter days are ahead for the area. He cites specifically the Hunter’s Lake project he and fellow commissioner Ken Hagan have championed for more than a decade, which could be the impetus for a New Tampa renewal.
“Our economy right now — in the country, in the state and in Hillsborough County — is very strong,” Crist says. “Those restaurants and businesses will soon be replaced by new ones that will come along and want to tap into our lucrative customer market. And, the new project will do exactly that.”
The Villages at Hunter’s Lake, which will be located right across BBD from the main entrance to the Hunter’s Green community, is expected to include a New Tampa Cultural Center, New Tampa’s first “green” grocer, a retail shopping strip with restaurants and a community park.
“Unfortunately, we have seen some traditional brick-and-mortar businesses close or move north recently,” Hagan says. “Much of this is due to competition from e-commerce and shifting consumer behavior. That is why investing in a New Tampa cultural arts center could not occur at a better time.”
The Villages of Hunter’s Lake has been described as a potential downtown or town center area for local residents.
“It will be new and different,” Crist says. “I am working with the developer and the county to attract new and different businesses that New Tampa residents want and would enjoy.”
“People are putting a lot of hope in Hunter’s Lake, and I hope it moves the needle,” Viera says.
The store closings in New Tampa also may appear more dire in the face of the unimpeded growth of Wesley Chapel, as new malls, town centers, hotels, restaurants and entertainment centers — like FHCI — are being added at a dizzying pace. Pasco County residents have fewer reasons to drive down BBD as they did even five years ago.
But, is growth in Wesley Chapel responsible for causing New Tampa-area businesses to pack it in?
“I would say no,” says Hope Allen, the CEO of the North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce, which serves the businesses in both communities.
“I think a lot of these closures are not just happening here locally; they are happening everywhere. Retail is evolving and big box stores are trying to adjust. I don’t think Wesley Chapel has an impact on that.”
Crist says that while Wesley Chapel may look like the more desirable location to spend your money these days, it’s only a matter of time before New Tampa adjusts to the changing landscape.
“There’s definitely competition between the Hillsborough side and the Pasco side of Bruce B. Downs,” Crist says. “They are fresh, they are new. But, it’s just a matter of time before we retool and compete and push back. It’s all part of the process. The economy and the patronage is there in New Tampa to compete.”
Allen agrees, and thinks that some out-with-the-old-and-in-with-something-new momentum could give New Tampa a new shine.
“This is an opportunity to come out bigger and better, with something more relevant to the people that live there,” Allen says. “They should take a page out of the Wesley Chapel playbook.”