Pockmarked Paradise: Vacant properties litter A1A
DAYTONA BEACH — Dozens of barren lots sprouting more cigarette butts than blades of grass are dismal reminders of failed businesses along State Road A1A.
Empty buildings bleed out rust and rotting wood. Vacant storefront windows are haphazardly covered with crumpled brown paper, plywood and faded bed sheets with tacky prints.
The eyesores pockmark A1A from Ormond Beach down to Daytona Beach Shores. Their decay detracts from the well-kept condos, hotels and other businesses along the main north-south traffic artery within earshot of Atlantic Ocean waves crashing onto the "World's Most Famous Beach."
Four News-Journal reporters recently walked the 10.5-mile stretch of A1A from Granada Boulevard to Dunlawton Boulevard. The survey also included the three main roads between the ocean and the mainland that cut through the core beachside neighborhood of Daytona Beach.
The team found 213 vacant lots, buildings and storefront addresses. The bulk of them — 142 — are scattered up and down A1A, the oceanfront corridor that in so many other coastal towns is jammed with high-dollar hotels, top-tier retailers and restaurants, and tony homes. Another 71 vacant properties were found along East International Speedway Boulevard, Main Street and Seabreeze Boulevard between the Halifax River and the beach.
"It's criminal," fumed lifelong beachside resident Paul Zimmerman. "If you had walked that same stretch of A1A 30 years ago, you'd be lucky if you could find three vacancies. This is oceanfront property. There's something wrong here."
The majority of the empty properties, 152, are in Daytona Beach. That's at least partly a result of the high number of vacancies along East ISB, Main Street and Seabreeze. The News-Journal also counted dozens of vacant lots and storefronts in Daytona Beach Shores and Ormond Beach.
News-Journal staffers made the same journey almost six years ago and came up with nearly identical results: 210 total vacancies, 148 of them on A1A. It's not a mystery why the numbers haven't budged.
Many of the properties that were deserted in 2012 remain empty shells, looking more beat up than ever. While some shuttered shops and hotels have reopened, a new collection of beachside buildings and lots have slipped into a vacant limbo.
Mixed in with the idled properties are plenty of attractive and flourishing businesses such as The Shores Resort & Spa and the newly refurbished Streamline Hotel, making A1A a schizophrenic mix of weedy trash-strewn lots and multimillion-dollar buildings.
It's been a rapid descent for a once-thriving area.
"The beachside was still the higher-end side of Daytona in the 1970s," said Mike Denis, who moved into a home a few blocks from the ocean as a 10-year-old in 1957. "It was better than the mainland, and then it flipped in the 1990s."
New beachside homes were built throughout the 1960s, and until 1983 kids went to a school on the property where the Daytona Lagoon water park now stands. There were solid businesses like the ice cream parlor Denis still raves about. Crime was lower and disheveled vagrants weren't melded into the beachside landscape like they are now.
"The homeless didn't even exist," said the 71-year-old Denis, who lives in the Lenox Avenue house he grew up in. "There were families. It's kind of sad to see the well-to-do neighborhood become the slum of the town. All of the emphasis is on the west side now. It's kind of discouraging."
Locals with beachside memories dating back to the 1940s remember the streets between the Halifax and Atlantic being dominated for decades by middle- and upper-class homes, schools, popular motels and a plethora of businesses.
When 79-year-old Angie Forest looks at empty beachside buildings that have stood since she was a child, she sees once-thriving businesses fading into history in slow motion.
"It's sad because you think back to the way it used to be," Forest said.
There's almost no resemblance now to the 44 years her father ran an amusement park on the Boardwalk and she lived in a house fronting A1A near Main Street.
"A1A was a very busy street with all the motels," she said. "It was just buzzing. In those days it was nice and it was cleaned up. There was just a small town atmosphere."
Most of the tourism happened in the summer, and when fall came "we'd get our town back," she said. Now she sees the area tangled in a Catch-22.
"Nobody comes because there's nothing to do, and nobody invests because nobody comes," Forest said.
In stark contrast to the days when Main Street was a bustling mix of businesses and offices, now it's hard to tell which Main Street businesses are regularly open, and which ones are just waiting for Bike Week and Biketoberfest to roll around before they swing open their doors. On the front door of Carol's Cat House gift shop at 813 Main St., the hours are listed as "Monday-Friday, Sometimes" and "Saturday-Sunday, Maybe."
Longtime residents say it's only in the past three decades that A1A and the greater beachside have been sucked into an economic undertow. Different people point to different causes of the downturn.
Some blame Walt Disney World for wooing away family tourism. Others point to raucous special events like Bike Week, Spring Break and Black College Reunion that made homeowners flee for quieter neighborhoods. Some believe new development that kept pushing farther and farther west hurt businesses along A1A.
Several hurricanes have also hobbled some structures in recent decades, including three in 2004, one in 2016 and another just last September. Rising insurance premiums that followed kicked property owners when they were down.
Bray & Gillespie, which at one time owned 35 beachside properties — most of them along A1A — delivered another body blow in 2008 when the company went bankrupt. That same year the Great Recession came crashing in and put a choke hold on real estate deals and new development.
When the real estate bubble burst, speculators who had bought properties in hopes of a windfall were stuck holding their land while they waited to recoup their investment.
'Got to be a solution'
Locals who have watched the rise and fall of A1A and other parts of the beachside see even more reasons the area has struggled.
Some are easy to see, but hard to fix, like lack of parking. Charles Lichtigman, chairman of Charles Wayne Properties, cited another factor most people probably don't think about: government regulations.
Lichtigman has been immersed in the local real estate market for 40 years, and he's seen how city and county codes, and grandfathering rights, can impact a property owner who wants to redevelop a building or vacant site. If an owner wants to change the use of a piece of land, or tear down a significant portion of a building, they can lose their vested rights, he said. Or, if a building has been sitting empty too long, usually for a year or more, it can lose its legally established use. It can be like having to start over, and it can be costly, cumbersome and in some cases impossible.
"It's created an inability on the part of the landowner to beautify or tear down," Lichtigman said. "You have more development options with a standing structure. You want to encourage the latest standards for things like drainage and setbacks, but when you make the cost for a tear down so great, then you're defeating your purpose."
From the 1940s to the 1960s, many beachside lots were broken up into smaller parcels and sold for retail, restaurants and motel uses that at the time didn't demand much space, Lichtigman said.
Denis contends the subdivided parcels that now blanket the beachside have done real damage.
"The city and entrepreneurs have been buying these chopped up parcels and leveling the structures, in many cases to reduce taxes paid," Denis said. "They're waiting to assemble bigger pieces, like a Monopoly game. This leaves empty lots where things once stood."
When new users try to redevelop on those small lots now, oftentimes not much land is left after complying with new rules that require more parking and landscaping, and pushing buildings farther from the street than in years past.
"Your density can diminish," said Lichtigman, whose company's offices are on Seabreeze Boulevard. "You might have to change your signs, too, to signs that are less attention-getting. Landowners don't want to sacrifice their rights to build."
Lichtigman said he was involved with a 33,000-square-foot property in Ormond Beach. If the structure on it had been torn down, the space left for development would have shrunk to 18,000 square feet.
Zimmerman recently watched an A1A property owner trying to walk the tightrope of redevelopment. The owner was trying to repair a hurricane-battered motel without losing entitlements on the property.
"They tore down 90 percent of the front of the building, left portions of a decorative wall up here and there and built right on the same footprint to not go through all the procedures of getting a new building," Zimmerman said. "You have to leave a percent of an existing building in place to get grandfathered back in under old codes."
Lichtigman said "there's got to be a solution here someplace. You want to see the whole community look better, and you can't if you preserve things with code from 40 years ago."
Ormond Beach Mayor Bill Partington — whose city has 22 A1A vacancies south of Granada Boulevard — said governments need to balance needed regulation with common sense. Both Ormond Beach and other local governments already offer the possibility of securing a planned development zoning that allows a relaxation of the rules.
Daytona Beach City Manager Jim Chisholm said demographics, investors and entrepreneurs also play a large role in the fate of the beachside, which he calls "a golden egg waiting to be grabbed."
"Government can't correct all the ills that are out there," Chisholm said.
In the past, governments could be more aggressive with redevelopment when they could seize property through eminent domain. A little over a decade ago, the law changed and now the need for roads, parking areas and parks are on a short list of justifications for forcibly buying out private property.
"The tools we have to work with today are limited compared to in the past," Chisholm said.
Reed Berger, Daytona Beach's redevelopment director, did not respond to a request for an interview.
More redevelopment challenges
Another barrier to overhauling the oceanfront is high asking prices for land or buildings, said John Albright, president and CEO of Consolidated-Tomoka Land Co.
"We've offered to buy many vacant properties in the past in order to help on the rejuvenation of the beachside," Albright said. "We've been surprised that many of these real estate agents are very fixated on getting a certain price, which is counterintuitive to anyone who has their money tied up."
If stricter code enforcement made it too expensive and bothersome to maintain old buildings, maybe more owners would be inspired to sell, he said. Tearing down buildings could also get properties in the hands of new developers, he said.
"A lot of these old commercial buildings have bad bones, and no one will invest in them," Albright said.
Ormond Beach Deputy Mayor Troy Kent, who has lived all of his 42 years blocks from the ocean in his city, believes beach access has also played a role in A1A's health. When the River Beach, Seminole and Rockefeller beach approaches south of Granada Boulevard re-open in Ormond Beach this spring, it will be the first time since 1986 that all six of the city's approaches have been usable, Kent said.
"People want to go to our beach and they could never access it because our approaches were always locked up," said Kent. "It was a financial death blow to our community."
Areas where people can get onto the beach are natural spots for businesses selling everything from sandwiches to boogie boards, Kent said. Since Andy Romano Beachfront Park just south of Granada Boulevard opened five years ago, businesses across the street are thriving, he said.
Kent thinks some people who use the new approaches will even be enticed to buy homes nearby.
"It's a great lifestyle to be able to walk to the ocean, dip your feet in and just be relaxed by the sound of seagulls," he said.
Zimmerman is all for more beach access to jump start redevelopment.
"For a century, all we needed was the beach to draw people, and now we've spent the past few decades blocking it off," he said.
Michael Lucas is hoping Andy Romano Beachfront Park will bring hungry customers to the Mexican restaurant he plans to open across the street by the end of this month. His eatery will be in a gutted and remodeled building on the west side of A1A that in former lives was a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store and Goodwill drop-off center.
The Tipsy Taco Cantina will serve wine and craft beer to wash down its spicy sustenance, and if Lucas can secure a liquor license there will be mixed drinks as well. He said he's having some trouble getting the liquor license he feels he needs to compete with other nearby restaurants, as well as getting Ormond Beach to agree on the number of tables and parking spaces he wants.
"We're just kind of beating our heads against the wall," said Lucas, who is already leasing the building and has hired staff. "I can understand why abandoned buildings stay empty. There's so many regulations that you just want to throw your hands up."
Partington said he wasn't aware of the Tipsy Taco's struggles, but he'd be happy to help if Lucas contacts him. Partington wants to keep the momentum going in that area, and he said grants Ormond Beach is trying to secure from the Florida Department of Transportation for A1A landscaping, medians and improved pedestrian safety should help.
Partington hopes vacant structures such as Florida Hospital Oceanside, which was damaged by Hurricane Irma in September, find new uses and new development miles west of the Halifax River will bring new residents and demand for new businesses to the beachside. Now 50, Partington wants to see Ormond Beach's stretch of A1A regain some of the life it had when he was a teenager.
"I remember it being more vibrant," he said. "Now it feels like it's had a couple teeth knocked out."
One sizable vacant property on Ormond Beach's oceanfront is headed for recovery. Three years ago, Volusia County purchased the 1.81-acre parcel on the northwest corner of A1A and Cardinal Drive. But nothing much changed since a gas station operator on part of the site had a lease that ran through last summer, said Jessica Winterwerp, the county's Coastal Division director. The county now hopes to turn much of the lot into off-beach parking that should have 124 spaces ready for the public by the end of this year or early 2019, Winterwerp said.
'It looks like Detroit'
To the south in Daytona Beach, vacant buildings and lots have become part of the rhythm of East International Speedway Boulevard for close to 20 years. Ironically, the planned $25 million overhaul intended to revive the struggling corridor has created more uncertainly and left properties in even more limbo.
Plans to widen the road and add a roundabout at A1A will mean property buyouts. But landowners don't know which lots will be targeted for purchase, how much property on the narrow street will be devoured and when work will get underway with a lengthy eminent domain process ahead for any owners who don't like the government's purchase offer. There's also worry about what a torn up road will do to businesses trying to operate.
David Devanna is taking a chance on East ISB despite the uncertainty, and in a building with a target on its back. He's renting a small structure on the northwest corner of A1A and East ISB that will likely get bought out for the roundabout. Devanna has opened a Segway and bicycle rental business there. He figures he'll have at least a year or two of great visibility while the road project gets solidified.
Despite the probable road widening and vacancies that surround him, Randall Phillips still has big dreams for the Tir Na Nog bar on East ISB that he runs with his dad. He also owns an empty structure next to his 98-year-old bar building, and plans to turn it into a brewery and beer garden if it isn't swallowed up in the street project.
The 42-year-old Daytona Beach native is eager to see development along East ISB and nearby A1A.
"When people ask for directions to the bar, I tell them come over the bridge and when it looks like Detroit, look to your right and we're there," Phillips said. "It's never been like this before. There's no reason why there should be so many vacancies with all the traffic."
Word is out that there are some struggling sections of Daytona's beachside, said Sean Sedita, a Port Orange-based buyer's agent with Keller Williams Realty.
"Some people are scared to come to Daytona Beach," Sedita said. "They want anything but Daytona Beach. They feel it's only a tourist town and they'll only make money a few times a year. I tell them the town is growing and evolving."
Even when he can get them to come for a visit, the low beachside incomes and dilapidated buildings can turn them on their heels back toward the airport.
"Once you start to cross that (ISB) bridge and drive onto the beachside, it changes their mood and their vibe," Sedita said.
A year ago, The News-Journal took a thorough look at Daytona's core beachside in a series that analyzed how government dollars had been spent in the area since it officially became a redevelopment area in 1982. After the series published, the county formed the Beachside Redevelopment Committee, which has spent the past nine months working on a list of recommendations to improve the area from Granada to Dunlawton. Lichtigman, Kent, Zimmerman and Albright all sit on that committee.
'Heaven on earth'
Lichtigman believes new oceanfront businesses such as the Hard Rock Hotel, LandShark Bar & Grill and Cocina 214 are "harbingers of things to come."
"In our brokerage business we're noting a significant increase by national investors and lenders the last couple of years," Lichtigman said. "Prior to this we were a backwater and tertiary place."
He's confident that several top-tier hotels, condos and restaurants opening on the east side of A1A will spur new development to pop up on the west side of the road.
"Over the next several years we'll see the west side fill up again," Lichtigman predicted.
Volusia County Property Appraiser Larry Bartlett also sees hope for the west side of A1A.
"We've had sales on A1A, even the west side, and East ISB," Bartlett said. "They're sales we think are basically speculative, not end users. But speculators are indicators someone believes something will happen on the beachside. Good times are ahead."
Bartlett added that "values are going up because they're willing to pay a lot." Over the past three years, values have risen 5 percent per year on the beachside, which is in line with the rest of the county, he said.
"It sort of tells me, even though we have what looks like a ghost town in certain areas, people are still buying," Bartlett said. "One of these days it could explode. They know the underlying value of this area."
Teena Marie Bates, owner of Sacred Strength Healing Arts on Seabreeze Boulevard, sees good things on the horizon for her yoga studio and the corridor it calls home.
"We'd like less vacancy, but we're working hard to change the vibe," said Bates, whose business runs out of an old grocery store site. "We're from San Francisco, and we see the potential others don't see."
Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry is all for commercial development, but he also wants to improve residential areas of the beachside.
"If you want a community to be great, it has to be a place people want to live," Henry said.
Daytona Beach Shores Mayor Harry Jennings is also battling vacancies, mainly the 39 on A1A in his city.
"We have too many," Jennings said. "I'd like to see them all filled."
At least one man who has run a Daytona Beach Shores business for a decade isn't worried.
"I think that things are turning around in the Shores with new development on A1A," said Kevin Purucker, owner of The Cracked Egg Diner on the west side of A1A.
Purucker expanded his restaurant for the second time last summer to accommodate the mix of locals and tourists he draws. He said the city has "worked on beautifying itself" by burying utility lines and widening sidewalks a few years ago.
"I think there's a transition happening in this area and it's beginning to trend up," Purucker said. "Real estate values are climbing and properties are staying on the market less time."
Jennings, mayor of Daytona Beach Shores since 2010, said his challenge in attracting new business is that he has just 4,327 full-time residents. That swells to about 10,000-12,000 in the winter months.
Both numbers should go up in a few years when more new condos open, which will help support more businesses along A1A, Jennings said.
Sedita, the Keller Williams Realty representative, and one of his co-workers, Dino Dodani, are full of ideas to eradicate beachside vacancies. The pair, both 39 years old, have known each other since they were 11. Both are involved with properties on A1A, East ISB, Main Street and Seabreeze Boulevard.
"We're trying to make it a family-oriented place with restaurants and entertainment," Sedita said. "So many places in Florida are just beautiful, clean and there's a variety of things to do. Me and Dino are trying to make that happen here."
Sedita said he's getting some bites, and Dodani said he has already sold "quite a bit" of property on Main Street and East ISB.
On Main Street, Dodani said he thinks "all of the owners should be pulled together and asked to play ball so a developer can be told the price per square foot." He also suggests planning new Main Street businesses around a theme, like focusing on wellness and opening a gym, juice bar and bicycle shop.
"You've got to get it going," said Dodani. "There's a lack of organization and working together now. If you want to get something done, you can't do it in pieces. A street right there by the ocean should be heaven on earth."
Road to recovery? Amid vacancies, A1A successes sprout
DAYTONA BEACH — It was a tad chilly for morning margaritas on the Atlantic Ocean side of State Road A1A.
But that was the drink of choice in late January as area leaders toasted the opening of the Jimmy Buffett-branded LandShark Bar & Grill and adjoining, separately-owned Cocina 214 Tex-Mex eatery on a 6-acre beachfront lot just north of SunSplash Park.
“It has been a really fast year in making this happen,” said John Albright, president and CEO of Consolidated-Tomoka Land Co., landowner and developer of the $6 million dual-restaurant project at 451 S. Atlantic Ave.
“Our whole mission here is basically to get this property activated and get the beachside activated,” Albright told customers, employees, Parrotheads and local dignitaries assembled in the parking lot. “To me, this is the potential of Daytona Beach, and this is a start, and there’s a lot more to come.”
New development on A1A has long been overshadowed by the overwhelming number of vacant lots and empty storefronts that blemish the iconic roadway that runs north and south along the World's Most Famous Beach.
The new restaurants are touted as a potential catalyst that can ignite other beachside development. A little more than a month after opening, both eateries are reporting healthy business, poised to become success stories along the 10.5-mile stretch of A1A from Ormond Beach to Daytona Beach Shores.
“We’re ecstatic at being here,” said David Crabtree, president and CEO of Orlando-based IMCMV, licensee of the restaurant chain started by Buffett’s Margaritaville Holdings company. “It has exceeded all our expectations.”
Lounging recently on one of the restaurant’s bright yellow, heavily branded wooden deck chairs, Crabtree caught the attention of Rich Torella, the restaurant's general manager, to compliment him on two record days the previous weekend.
“Actually, every week has been a record week for this place,” Crabtree said. “We’re doing about 50 percent more business than we planned on doing. We’ve been received very well by all the tourists and local consumers, as well.”
Next door, as the early lunch crowd arrived at Cocina 214, restaurant co-founder Lambrine Macejewski echoed that satisfaction. The beachfront spot is the second location for the eatery, which has established a loyal following at its original Winter Park restaurant, which opened in 2011.
“We just had the Daytona 500 and we did really well with that,” said Macejewski, who is optimistic about the potential impact of other new projects on A1A. “It’s all great and positive. The community is full of wonderful people.”
Yet she also understands that two new restaurants are merely the start of a long process.
"It takes perseverance, especially when you're trying to change big things," Macejewski said.
'What's going on across the street?'
The side-by-side restaurants aren’t the only noticeable improvements on A1A.
The landmark stretch of asphalt also was recently enhanced by the renovation and 2017 re-opening of the historic Streamline Hotel, located a half a mile north and across the street from the new restaurants.
Farther north and on the beachside of A1A, the luxury Hard Rock Hotel opened last week. The hotel is a result of a multi-million dollar renovation of what was once the infamous Desert Inn, an eyesore once touted by TripAdvisor as among the dirtiest hotels in the nation.
Several other major hotel projects are in development along A1A, including a new Marriott Renaissance Hotel planned to open in two years on an oceanfront site about a half-mile north of the Ocean Center, and a 10-story Courtyard by Marriott hotel on the beach just south of Main Street. Construction already is underway on Protogroup’s towering Daytona Beach Convention Hotel and Condominium complex at the east end of Oakridge Boulevard.
Occasionally, an independently owned small business also envisions success on the stretch, such as Tipsy Taco, an eatery currently arising out of a converted Goodwill donation center on the west side of A1A north of Andy Romano Park in Ormond Beach. The restaurant hopes to open late this month.
“Because we’re not a chain, we can basically do whatever we want,” said owner Mike Lucas, a cardiac perfusionist investing $100,000 to launch Tipsy Taco, located at 746 S. Atlantic Ave., in Ormond Beach. “We plan to offer a relaxed surf-themed coastal cuisine, if you will, to pair up fusion tacos with local craft beer that goes well with that food.”
Such new gems are not as prevalent as the dozens of overgrown vacant lots and empty buildings on A1A that can mask progress on the beachside's main north-south traffic artery.
Even the success stories typically emerge in the shadow of blighted properties, such as the abandoned Majesty’s Court Motel, falling apart and encircled by chain link fence just north on A1A from the Hard Rock, gleaming in the wake of its $40 million restoration.
“Jesus loves you,” proclaims the Majesty's broken neon sign. Beneath that assurance, the word “NO,” the sign’s only lighted red letters, offers a pessimistic response.
Likewise, guests at the rooftop bar at the historic Streamline, famous as the site of the birth of NASCAR in 1947, still must overlook the view of an area pockmarked by blight below to embrace the hotel’s art-deco design. The hotel reopened in June 2017, after a $6 million makeover that began in 2014 and carried with it hope that the project might uplift the surrounding neighborhood.
At Cocina 214, owner Macejewski took a reporter outside the restaurant’s main entrance and pointed across the street.
“You look across the street and that building obviously is not up to code,” she said, gesturing toward the Ocean Breeze Motel at 400 S. Atlantic Ave. “And this is not me, standing here complaining. This comes from customers, what they are telling us. We’ve had them ask, ‘What’s going on across the street?’”
According to the city records, the Ocean Breeze was declared a “dangerous structure” following Hurricane Irma, said Susan Cerbone, city spokeswoman. A building permit to remove a second-floor walkway and roof was issued on Nov. 20, 2017 and is set to expire on May 19, according to city records. The empty hotel and its boarded-up windows are a stark contrast to the new restaurants across the street, both of which offer striking views of the Atlantic Ocean and beach.
Changes take time
Macejewski has added bicycle racks to her property because so many customers pedaled to the restaurant from nearby neighborhoods. She wishes that A1A was even more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly. She also would like to find a way to install brighter lights in the parking lot shared by the two restaurants for the safety of employees and customers.
At the same time, she understands that such changes can take time. In Winter Park, the original Cocina 214 spent two years in conversation with the city before a similar outdoor lighting issue was resolved, she said.
“Everyone has been super helpful,” Macejewski said of Daytona Beach. “It’s their town; they take pride in it, as they should. These things take time. These (older) buildings have been here a long time. It takes patience, but we’re here for the long haul.”
New additions on A1A, combined with a flurry of construction activity in the area around LPGA Boulevard and I-95, will spur more projects in Daytona Beach, including on A1A, Crabtree said.
“There’s a lot of vacant land in the area, so if we continue to see success like we’re seeing, we’ll see more development in the area,” Crabtree said. “I see it as a thriving market that should continue to do better in the future. With the continued support of local municipalities, it will attract other developers and operators.”
How much time?
But judging from the view at other points on A1A, it seems that things change at a glacial pace. Statistics support that notion.
In recent weeks, a team of News-Journal staffers walked the length of A1A, from Granada to Dunlawton boulevards, to count vacant lots and empty buildings on the main thoroughfare and adjoining main business corridors that connect to A1A in Daytona Beach's core beachside neighborhood. The new numbers were compared with the results of a similar count the newspaper conducted in 2012.
It revealed that not much has changed, reflected in a count of more than 200 vacant properties in 2018, including 142 on A1A. In 2012, the newspaper also counted more than 200 vacant properties, including 148 on A1A.
For the area’s recent high-profile success stories to flourish, the holes in A1A must be plugged with a mix of small businesses that offer unique tourist-friendly diversions, said Bob Davis, president and CEO of the Lodging & Hospitality Association of Volusia County. That organization represents about 100 area hotels encompassing some 10,000 rooms, as well as 150 allied members in other tourism-related fields.
As luxury hotels such as the Hard Rock open, they will attract a clientele with more disposable income and higher expectations for activities beyond the beach, Davis said.
“We need small boutique shops on the west side of the street,” Davis said of A1A. “I’m not talking shopping malls, but places to buy unique items they might find in other upscale areas.
“We need small Italian gourmet restaurants, small French restaurants, small Jewish delicatessens,” Davis said. “We need to have great shopping, have great diners, so when they go back where they came from don’t have to say they ate at Olive Garden, just like the one in Iowa. If you want to entertain a better clientele you can’t leave that west side of the street barren and boarded up.”
Without such improvements, Davis said, guests might visit luxury hotels such as Hard Rock once, but more than likely won’t be inspired to return. Nor will they share crucial positive word-of-mouth back home to court other visitors.
Tourism is important, of course, because it bolsters bed taxes collected by Volusia County from local hotels, campgrounds and short-term vacation rental properties to promote the respective areas as destinations for tourism and special events through the area’s three tourism ad authorities.
During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, more than $21 million was collected in bed taxes countywide, with half of the revenues going to fund the county-run Ocean Center convention complex in Daytona Beach.
The other half went to the county’s three tourism ad authorities to market their respective areas — the Daytona Beach/Halifax Area, Southeast Volusia and West Volusia — as tourism and special event destinations. More than $8 million went to the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, according to the county’s revenue division.
“If we’re going to keep the (hotel room) rates and taxes coming into the county at a better rate, you’ve got to offer something,” Davis said. “If we don’t give them something where they can walk out of hotels and go across the street to get a unique experience, we’re going to lose them. If we don’t do it, in two years, the new hotels will mean nothing.”
'We'd like to inspire others'
For a good example, Davis recommends looking at the tourist areas of Delray Beach, a coastal destination in South Florida. There, leisure options range from the Pineapple Grove Arts District, a walkable neighborhood featuring independent galleries and public art, to the Wakodahatchee Wetlands, a park with a boardwalk for viewing birds, turtles and alligators.
The three cities A1A runs through — Ormond Beach, Daytona Beach and Daytona Beach Shores — and Volusia County government should collaborate to offer incentives that would encourage small-business owners to invest along A1A to create similar homegrown attractions, Davis said.
“We’ve got to give them (small business owners) tax abatements, so small restaurants and boutique shops can move in,” Davis said. “Give them one year of free rent. Give them a bucket of paint. We don’t need new buildings. We have been talking about it for 20 years and do nothing,”
A broader potential solution, meanwhile, has gained traction among members of the Beachside Redevelopment Committee, a board appointed by the County Council that’s tasked with coming up with ideas to make the area east of the Halifax River — from Ormond Beach to Daytona Beach Shores — more attractive.
The committee formed in June 2017, weeks after a News-Journal series focused on blight in the core beachside neighborhood of Daytona Beach. The committee is slated to hold its final meeting at 5:30 p.m. March 22 at the Ocean Center, before releasing its recommendations to city governments and the county council, said committee chair Tony Grippa.
"First and foremost, A1A deserves infrastructure improvement that would make it pedestrian-friendly, bicycle-friendly, with lighting and medians where people can cross safely," said Grippa, who also favors a more collaborative effort among area law enforcement agencies to improve a perception that A1A is unsafe after dark. "As growth has gone to the west, I believe that beachside is not getting its fair share of infrastructure expenditure. The thought process is that if the infrastructure can be fixed, and I think it can, then it (A1A) could be used as an economic engine for the area."
Grippa also points to other Florida destinations — Vero Beach, Destin and Panama City Beach, for instance — that have benefited from investment in marquee roadways.
"If you look at other communities, you’re going to see pedestrian walkways, set-back requirements to make bike-able communities," Grippa said. "By doing that, it will have the effect of increasing the value of the properties on and around A1A, which will essentially pay for itself over time. Increased property value decreases the tax liability of everyone else. I'm along the lines of an investment in the community, rather than giving an individual business a rebate."
Volusia County Council member Billie Wheeler, whose district includes the newly opened beachfront Landshark and Cocina 214 restaurants, considers that project a good start.
"I visit them frequently," Wheeler said. "The view is worth a million dollars, right there."
To build on that momentum will require cooperation and focus from all corners of the community, Wheeler said.
"Code is an issue, but we’re becoming more aware of that and bringing it to the forefront," she said. "East ISB, that's a big catalyst, our entrance that needs to be brought up to the expectations of the rest of the community. Safety is a big factor. Let’s all do whatever we need to do to get our section looking good. I believe it takes a collaboration between the cities, the county, residents and the businesses. They all have to come together."
At the Tipsy Taco, meanwhile, a team of roughly half a dozen employees help with carpentry and other forms of sweat equity, as a mural of a masked, dark-haired cowgirl looks over their shoulders.
“There are 20,000 cars that go up and down this road daily,” owner Lucas said, in praise of the potential of the restaurant’s location. “We’ve taken one of those empty buildings and done something nice with it. We’d like to inspire others to do it, too.”
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