Commerce and Culture Reborn
The rise and fall and
rebirth of Key West’s Duval Street deliver an important lesson
to all Clearwater residents working for a thriving, prosperous
by Lisa Mansell
Like most US cities in the
40’s and 50’s, Key West’s downtown shopping district thrived,
and its heart was Duval Street. But like an arrow to that
heart came the 1960’s and that new American phenomenon: the
shopping mall. Searstown Center opened and, before long,
retailers and shoppers migrated en masse to the swank mall,
leaving Duvall Street a virtual wasteland, its deserted
buildings boarded up and vacant — for decades.
But what others gave up as a lost cause, entrepreneur Len
Chetkin seized as an opportunity.
“When we bought property on Duval Street our friends
thought that we were nuts. Who would want to buy property
there?” said Len Chetkin.
“I knew that I could have my business anywhere; I knew that
if I put my business in downtown, people would come.”
That was over 20 years ago. Today those once-boarded
storefronts are home to the popular clothing store chain
Chicos and Fresh Produce, as well as Little Switzerland and
other upscale retail shops. The warehouse that once served the
Chetkins’ carpet company is now being renovated by the Key
West Film Society into screening rooms, lounges and a café.
“I now have the same feeling about Cleveland Street,” said
Chetkin. Convinced downtown Clearwater has similar potential
for a commercial and cultural renaissance, he and his wife,
Emmy, recently bought property on Cleveland and Fort Harrison,
with plans to renovate it to house a new business. Like others
with kindred optimism, the Chetkins are among a growing number
of entrepreneurs and developers who are bringing a vibrancy to
downtown that the city has not seen since well before the mall
years. It is a trend that, on one hand, takes us back to the
convenience and charm of an earlier era, but on the other, is
tailored to the growing needs of a diversity of Clearwater
Return to Main Street
As many here recall, there was a time not long ago when the
commercial and cultural lifeblood of the Clearwater community
flowed outward from downtown. That was where we went to do
business, where we saw our insurance man, got an ice cream
cone, shopped the department stores, bought our kids’ school
clothes as fall drew near. Within easy reach were the movie
theater and the hospital, the churches and the banks.
The birth of suburbia changed all
that here and across America. Clearwater, like the rest
of the country, went through its own cycle of the
migration of residents and businesses away from the downtown area and
out to the “’burbs”. Downtown Clearwater, like other
U.S. cities, slid into decline.
But after several decades of suburban sprawl, the indoor
shopping center and long commutes, “the times, they are
a-changing.” National trends are returning the exiled to
downtowns as venues of choice to live, work and shop.
Clearwater is using this trend to her
advantage, focusing on the redevelopment of the downtown core
of the city.
Reinforcing this migration back to downtown on a grassroots
level is the national Main Street Program and our state
Florida Main Street Program. These initiatives foster the use
of both public and private funds to revitalize downtowns.
Clearwater itself was officially proclaimed a Main Street
community in 1998, and this August celebrated its fifth
anniversary as such.