TAMPA — After years of planning, Timothy Hodge and his business partner opened the Harbourside Animal Hospital on Jan. 31.
The downtown Tampa business was welcomed with much fanfare; Mayor Bob Buckhorn and other officials from the city and Tampa Downtown Partnership attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony on opening day.
The animal hospital is the latest business to come to downtown's Channel District with the intent of serving residents of the rapidly-expanding urban neighborhood.
A couple of years ago only a few hundred people lived downtown, said Donna Chen, director of marketing and communications for Tampa Downtown Partnership, a membership group that serves downtown's businesses. Now development officials project all of the 7,000 downtown apartment and condominium units —existing or planned — soon will be full if the area keeps growing at its current pace, she said.
And with more residents come more businesses such as the Harbourside Animal Hospital, eager to capitalize on the growing residential market.
Hodge, who lives in the Harbour Island neighborhood connected by bridges to downtown, has another veterinary practice in North Tampa. He has watched for years as his urban neighbors have had to drive out of downtown to take their pets to a vet. Now that the economy again is “growing like mad,” he said, he knew the time was right to open a second office to serve Channel District residents.
“To us, it looked like an area that was probably under-served in the veterinary care department,” Hodge said.
The animal hospital is one of several businesses that have taken advantage of the Neighborhood Amenity Incentives program, funded by the Channel District Community Redevelopment Area.
The program reimburses qualifying businesses — banks, restaurants and dry cleaners, for example — up to $10,000 in city fees related to building permits, inspections and water connections.
The idea is to help attract new businesses that directly will serve the growing residential population in the Channelside area, said Bob McDonough, the city's administrator of economic opportunity. The program has existed for a few years, he said, and grants have been given to several of restaurants at the base of the Grand Central at Kennedy building as well as other businesses in the area.
During the past five years or so, businesses such as Powerhouse Gym, Victory Coffee and Tea Bar, salon 1.0, Xotik Tan Spa and others have opened in the area.
People sometimes are surprised to learn how high residential occupancy rates are in the district, McDonough said. Units there largely have been full for a few years, and more businesses will make the area increasingly attractive to potential renters and buyers, he said.
“It seems like it's picking up momentum again,” McDonough said about post-recession growth in the Channel District. “I think it will turn out just the way folks have hoped.”
The Channel District is one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in the city, and officials have allocated millions of dollars in recent years to turn the former warehouse district near the port into a chic entertainment and urban center.
A third city park is planned for the area and workers broke ground last week on the 23-story SkyHouse apartment tower, off 12th Street between Washington and Whiting streets.
Details also are beginning to emerge about what Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik plans to do with 21 acres he owns near the Forum.
The future of the long-suffering Channelside Plaza still is uncertain while the Tampa Port Authority is tied up in a lawsuit with Liberty Channelside developers.
But the plight of Channelside isn't slowing down growth in the remainder of the district, Chen said, and officials don't think it will in the future.
“We're not wringing our hands that nothing's going to take place,” she said. “Something will happen and it's just bound to be fabulous.”
In a 2012 poll conducted by Tampa Downtown Partnership, more than half the people surveyed who worked downtown said they were interested in moving there. Poll results also showed 50 percent of the downtown residents surveyed moved to the city center from elsewhere in Tampa.
“I think that really is indicative of us going at a very healthy pace,” Chen said.
Jason Carroll, who has worked and lived in the Channel District for three years, said residents like living in the area because they enjoy the amenities of the urban neighborhood. Everything is within walking distance, and they have easy access to the Forum, the Straz Center for the Performing Arts and the streetcar to Ybor City.
What Channel District residents want to see next in the area — besides a decision about what to do with Channelside Plaza — is more retail, Carroll said. The area doesn't have a grocery store or a convenience store, which can be a hassle sometimes, he said.
Carroll, who sits on the community advisory council for the Channel District CRA, manages the “Channelside Residents” Facebook page and tries to provide followers with information about business openings and other relevant news in the area.
He has seen a lot of good things happen in the past few years, he said. Rentals are hard to find now, and more businesses are coming.
“People are definitely investing here,” Carroll said.