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Tide of Pinellas tourism turning inland, too

Tribune staff
Published: May 25, 2014
jay conner/staff
Signs of an economic upturn are evident on Dunedin’s Main Street. In fact, businesses are reporting their best year in recent memory.

DUNEDIN — Coastal hotels enjoyed their biggest spring break on record in March, bringing in more than $5 million in bed tax revenue for the month, but guests aren’t spending all their money at the beach.

In a state that’s been experiencing a historic boom in visitation the past two years, what sets Tampa Bay area beaches apart is what tourists can find here besides perfect white sand.

They’re hopping on a trolley from Clearwater to downtown Dunedin to dine like locals at the surf-and-turf establishment Sea Sea Riders.

Main Street businesses are having their best year in recent memory, and the economic recovery is even spurring plans for new condos and a hotel to accommodate more overnight stays.

Across the peninsula in Safety Harbor, store windows that were empty for several years are full again — from antique shops and eateries to pubs.

Downtown merchants are banding together to renew a pilot trolley service that began this year, linking visitors to bustling Clearwater Beach with this quaint town at the tip of Old Tampa Bay.

“The last year has been phenomenal with everything going on, all the new development and all the new people finally realizing Dunedin is a gem,” said Sylvia Tzekas, who has run Sea Sea Riders at Main Street and Edgewater Drive for more than 20 years.

“Once they come through the town, they realize with all the wonderful shops and businesses down here that this is such a great day trip, and they’ve made it more of a weekend getaway, even for people from Tampa or Orlando.”

Good news and congratulations are starting to become routine at meetings of the Pinellas County Tourist Development Council, where there are announcements every few months of records being broken.

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As visitation numbers were tallied at last week’s meeting, visitors bureau director D.T. Minich reported that March brought in the highest monthly tax collections on overnight stays in Pinellas’ history.

“Things couldn’t be better, knock on wood, and we’re looking forward to a great summer,” he said.

Revenue from the 5 percent tax levied on hotels and motels is up about 10 percent over last year’s record collections in the first three months of this year, Minich said.

Florida’s strongest quarter for tourism, the winter months, has been exceptional this year across the state, with 26.7 million visitors from January to March, according to the state’s tourism arm, Visit Florida.

At a visit to Busch Gardens in Tampa this month, Gov. Rick Scott said he expects the state to break 100 million visitors by the end of the year, 5 million more than last year’s 95 million milestone, solidifying the industry’s economic recovery after the 2008 slump.

In Safety Harbor, that recovery appears to be in full swing, merchants say.

During weekend festivals such as the annual Safety Harbor Seafood Festival in early March or the newly created Singer Songwriter festival last month, Main Street is packed with people all the way down to the waterfront.

Most importantly, businesses seem to be getting enough foot traffic to keep their doors open between the festivities.

“The Main Street had been pretty much depleted of businesses,” said Melissa Torres, a painter from Clearwater who sells her work out of a bright bungalow right off Main Street on Second Avenue South called the Safety Harbor Galleria.

Torres can’t say for sure whether the change has come from tourists or the growing number of people moving into the homes surrounding the downtown area, but the city’s vibe definitely has changed for the better.

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A new link on Clearwater Beach’s Jolley Trolley between Dunedin and Safety Harbor is one sign of the town’s growing appeal to outsiders.

Since the service began in February, merchants say, foot traffic downtown has been up and they’re pushing for the nonprofit trolley to renew its contract next year.

The trolley has been expanding its service to numerous small towns in north Pinellas County during the past few years, with routes to Tarpon Springs, Palm Harbor, Ozona and other stops. The trolley’s ridership has grown from 68,000 in 2009 to about 600,000, said officials with the trolley service.

The trolley has been key to expanding access to the county’s many cultural attractions, especially for visitors from Europe and big northern cities such as Chicago and New York, where public transit is the norm, says Walter Klages, who conducts tourism market research for the county.

That’s important, since visitor surveys in the past several years have shown that people coming to Pinellas aren’t coming only for the beaches anymore, said Klages, head of Research Data Services in Tampa.

“Sun, beach, relaxing used to be the core — it’s still the core — but what has really come up over the years is the cultural aspect, meaning being able to go to the museums, go see the Dalí (Museum), to go and experience a concert or a jazz festival or shrimp festival,” he said.

In March, when researchers asked visitors what they did besides the beach, the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs was third highest spot on the list after the Orlando attractions and Busch Gardens. Dunedin has been creating buzz for well over a decade now with a perpetual list of cultural festivals, including everything from Mardi Gras to the Day of the Dead.

The idea, says Tzekas, of Sea Sea Riders, is to give people a reason to come and stay just a little bit longer, which is why they’ve been slowly adding an extra day to many events.

“We’re working really hard to keep all the people coming in and staying for the weekend,” she said.

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Because towns like Dunedin have few hotels, it can be hard to quantify tourism spending. For example, Dunedin only represented $54,000 of the county’s March bed tax collections, compared with $1.7 million in Clearwater.

But demand for tourist lodgings downtown appears to be driving interest in redeveloping the historic Fenway Hotel just south of downtown.

An exasperating lack of parking spots in downtown Dunedin and Gulfport during busy tourism weekends may also be a strong indicator that day trips are up.

Dunedin is contemplating locations for a parking garage, and Gulfport officials have toyed with the idea of creating a shuttle service for residents near downtown to make space for tourists.

Safety Harbor store owner Martha Morrison Sabo says strong sales and the almost complete lack of empty retail space downtown are signs that her town is gaining more attention.

She opened a pair of stores called Antiques to Aardvarks two years ago and says it was the best decision she’s ever made.

“We got it at just the right time. ... Everything filled quickly right after that,” said Sabo, who heads up the local merchants association.

In the past, Sabo said, many people just “stumbled upon” her town by accident. Today, more and more of them are coming on purpose.

“We want to make it a destination.”

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