SEMINOLE - Flags adorning the Seminole Mall parking lot declare that it's "The place to shop," but the dimly-lit hallways, boarded up food court and scattered storefronts make it look all but abandoned. However, just a few minutes down the street in either direction Sunday were markers of a reemerging economy in the area - local business fairs.
The first ever Christmas in July business expo was held Saturday and Sunday at the Seminole Recreation Center, and the Seminole Chamber of Commerce held a Buy Local Seminole Party down the street to provide promotional information to local business owners and community members.
Seminole is a small community of about 19,000 spread over five miles. After about 8 years of a slumping economy, more local businesses offering a variety of services are emerging, said Roger Edelman, president of the Greater Seminole Area Chamber of Commerce.
"We have a predominance of small businesses in the city of Seminole, and now that we're starting to crawl out of the recession, there's a renewed interest in keeping them alive," Edelman said. "We're small, we're not right on the beaches, and there's no major industry, so now is also the time we have to help these businesses market themselves through events, the web and social media."
Seminole is a residential town, primed for family-friendly events and mom-and-pop businesses to flourish, said Sonya Bradley, marketing director for Face to Face marketing and partner of Largo-based Simply Events. The events company launched in January and its Christmas-themed expo had the best turnout so far. About 900 patrons browsed eight local businesses and 40 others from across the state.
"There are so many people trying to support their families here with their own businesses, and in order to do that we have to shop local, or the Publix-es and Wal-Marts will keep coming in and more small businesses will keep disappearing," Bradley said. "These guys that have products to sell really just get customers by word of mouth, which is great, but they need an extra boost. "
Santa Clause, balloon animals, face painting and a fake snow party kept kids entertained as adults browsed booths from companies like All 'Bout Cats, Inc., a no-kill, all-volunteer cat rescue shelter.
The cat rescue took monetary donations, sold crafts made by volunteers and was able to place two cats, during the event.
"I used to live in Clearwater, where it's just one big box store after the other, but it's a much slower pace in Seminole, and I think people are much more friendly to smaller businesses,"said the shelter's director and founder Leslee Hall.
Still, there are challenges, said Vandy Comtois, who has run the hand-made craft store VandyBuilt Designs for the past eight years. To keep her business alive, which she formerly ran throughout Texas for 30 years, she branched out to other communities and craft shows all over Florida. Even so, the past few years have seen a decrease in customers and an increase in the number of discounts she's had to place on her products, Comtois said.
"I still have friends who sell the same things in Texas and they're much more lucrative then I am in Florida," Comtois said. "Overall, this show has had a slow turnout. Nowadays people are more lookers than shoppers."
That's why the chamber formed a partnership with LocalShops1, a grass roots coalition, which helps promote about 300 member Tampa Bay area businesses. Together, they are finding ways to unite local businesses and get customers to shop locally. At their Sunday party at the Seminole Lake Country Club the group showcased nine locally-owned businesses in the Buy Local Seminole program, a discount card for hundreds of independent area businesses that shoppers can buy for $20. The group hosts four main events each year, and is looking to grow even more in the coming years, said Mo Venouziou, vice president of LocalShops1.
"Compared to St. Petersburg, our shops are less visible. You have the whole downtown area in St. Pete where you can walk down the street and see everything. Here you have to do a lot of driving and really seek out shops," Venouziou said. "Everyone says they believe in shopping local, and they will as long as we can make them more visible."