Gay Wilton Manors: Boom or Bust?

A non-profit group of residents and business owners in gay Wilton Manors last year in April appealed to city commissioners with a brand new vision for the drive that cuts through the center of the island city, now home to one of the largest and most thriving LGBT communities in America.

The vision was to convert the barren two-lane highway known to locals as ‘The Drive” into a tree-lined thoroughfare, which would include lanes for bicyclists, wider sidewalks, boutique businesses, and increased, more accessible parking.

A year later, a new Wachovia Bank is opening on the corner of the Five Points intersection, but five times as many businesses have abandoned their dream and are closing their doors.  A modern new Thai restaurant has opened in the Georgie’s Alibi hub center, but not before the once popular Bottoms & Tops shut its doors.

Across the street, businesses like Book Nook and Gelato Martini have come and gone in less than a year.

The number of empty storefronts with “for lease” and “for rent” signs has driven up to 66 out of 130, five more than the 61 in January. It’s an astounding number for a local shopping venue, and the vacancy rate is higher than the national average.  Of the businesses that do exist on The Drive, nearly half have only been open for two years, and 16 percent only one year.

Even with less than half of the commercial units occupied some people believe that Wilton Drive is thriving.

“I think it’s just the opposite. I think Wilton Drive is doing very well,” said John Castelli, owner of Castelli Real Estate Offices. In fact his business is doing so well he recently expanded it to include a second storefront. Tony Dee, owner of more than 40,000 square feet of commercial real estate on The Drive agrees. “I have 100 percent of my stores rented out. I have no problems.”

Dee, who owns commercial rental properties throughout Broward County, said Wilton Drive is doing the best. While Castelli added: “North of Atlantic Blvd. there are blocks and blocks and blocks of vacant and empty buildings. Wilton Drive is doing well considering.”

But not everyone is so optimistic.

Paul Hugo, owner of The Manor, which is The Drive’s largest business in terms of square feet, said the recession has hurt businesses.

“There are no investors. No money right now. People can’t get financing,” he said. If it weren’t for the recession he believes “places like mine would have sprouted up all over the place. Right now it’s all so sporadic. There’s a beginning, middle and end here, but it’s not a vibrant street like Las Olas from one end to the other.”

Krishan Manners, President of Wilton Manors Main Street, (WMMS) paints a gloomy picture.

“At the current rate of decline, this year will surpass 2010’s gross loss of thirteen businesses from The Drive.”  WMMS is an organization founded to improve and promote Wilton Drive and the Arts and Entertainment district.

“Regrettably, the economic slump currently being experienced by the entire country has taken a direct toll on the small businesses on Wilton Drive,” said the owners of Sidelines Sports Bar Laurie Whittaker and Marty Kildea. “Having a business in the ‘Entertainment District’ of Wilton Manors is no longer as lucrative an enterprise as it once was. Just look at the number of vacancies we’ve seen in the last year.”

Most businessmen suggest the recession is the blame for not just the decline, but the lack of advancement as well. Still, new construction on the drive is rampant. But tenants are not necessarily jumping at the high lease and maintenance prices.

In fact high lease prices may be one of the reasons so many businesses fail and the turnover rate so high.

“Landlords can’t keep raising the rental prices every year and expect businesses to be able to afford it when the economy is going in the other direction,” Castelli said. “Landlords always seem to want to raise the rent as opposed to being cognizant of the reality of what the market is doing.”

Meanwhile, professionals looking for virtual office space on The Drive have discovered Wilton Executive Suites, managed by Mike Krauser. Once the home of a now defunct gay newspaper, The Blade, WES offers 34 office suites ranging in size from 62 square feet to 475 square feet, along with free parking, flexible lease terms, and reception service. Located at 2312 Wilton Drive, their Facebook page currently posts a warning that there are “Only 2 offices left under our $799.00 all inclusive office deal.”

Lack of Unity

Besides the recession other reasons cited for The Drive’s decline include poor city management, poor business planning, metered parking, and a lack of unity.

“Between the Wilton Manors Business Association, Stonewall and Main Street all working in different directions, no one was united, there wasn’t any synergy there,” said Bobby Kyser, owner of Petals Panache, a floral design shop that moved from Wilton Drive to downtown Fort Lauderdale.

The success, he said, of any downtown area hinges on a united focus and direction. He claims it was lacking in gay Wilton Manors.

Steve Jolly, founder of SRJ Marketing in Dallas, Texas, once had a satellite office on Wilton Drive. He concurs.

“Any time people organize things overall it tends to be much better.  A central organized business force is far more efficient,” he said on the importance of cohesion. “When there are separate organizations, they all take on their own focus, and all go in different directions.”

Tom Tabor, Vice President of WMMS, however, does not see the conflict. He feels that each of the different pro business groups in the city addresses special aspects of the community to improve businesses.”

Tabor also believes by this strategy of development “they improve communication and cooperation…[and] contribute to plan, promotion and future improvements throughout the community.”

Many of the local businesses have made a name for themselves nationally, often without the help or support of the city. Sidelines was written up in Business Week as one of the best sports bars in the nation. The Manor has hosted private parties for leading politicians, film festivals, comedy performances, and dinners for local organizations. Georgie’s Alibi not only sells more beer than any bar in South Florida, it just defended its title for offering the ‘Best Burger in Town.’

Big Events Are Cash Cows

Wilton Manors does not get the national coverage its larger neighbor, gay Fort Lauderdale does. Gay Fort Lauderdale’s centennial celebration was promoted with print and television ads, and an appearance by Connie Francis.  It included articles in The Huffington Post and USA Today Travel. In gay Wilton Manors, the city commission could not even agree to close the city streets for its Halloween Festival, which draws 10,000 people to the drive for a festive evening that had Key West Fantasy potential.  A single evening can pump five times that into local businesses.

But that was last year. It appears the city has learned from its mistake since because it has hired a private company to run this year’s Stonewall Street Festival on June 19 and the Halloween Festival in October.

Drawing in large crowds can make a fortune for a city and event planners. Some businessmen suggest that with more of these events annually, ‘The Drive” would be more appealing to local entrepreneurs.

Though such events are potentially profitable, promoters face high risks.  Too high, some say, to even risk putting them on.  The cost of various permit fees by the city, advertising and marketing, inventory etc, can all be wiped out by foul weather, thus turning a profitable event into a costly venture.

Director of Community Development Services for the city of gay Wilton Manors Heidi Shafran, notes that while costly, “permitting fee’s haven’t been adjusted in years, and fees such as the life safety fee have to be paid directly to a third party. The city can’t totally control those costs.”

Additionally Shafran added, “[gay Wilton Manors] makes very little profit from their fees.”  This could be detrimental to The Drive’s ability to promote events such as art shows, which close East Las Olas in gay Fort Lauderdale a half dozen times every year.

Kyser noted that by comparison, “Miami Beach pays the promoters of their event as much as $60,000. The cost of putting on a festival on Wilton Drive is far, far too high for someone who is really trying to help the community.”

He also stated that if the business community wants to succeed long term, “the united promotion of events, a united vision and a clear strategy are all necessary components.”

Wilton Manors Main Street is hosting a series of seminars and workshops to help business owners and prospective ones learn what opportunities are there for them, and what developments are in the works. The first of those took place April 27.

Parking Major Concern

While there may be disagreements about whether or not The Drive is in decline, one thing that is almost universally agreed upon is that parking is a problem.

“No parking,” is the biggest complaint Tony Dee receives from his tenants about The Drive.

An informal SFGN Facebook survey on The Drive allowed citizens and business persons to address the deficiencies and expectations they had for the venue.

Bruce Maxwell commented “I love Wilton Drive… except for the parking,” while another commenter was more blunt, claiming it is time the city “built a g.d. parking garage already.” Indeed, the lack of parking has frustrated many of the local bars, including the Manor and Sidelines. The Manor tore down an adjacent building to provide parking that would not interfere with residents. The meters have not made the limited parking near Sidelines easier for its customers.

“Parking has always been a challenge for businesses in Wilton Manors, but now it seems to be more of a real problem,” said the owners of Sidelines. “We must find easy ways for our customers to visit us without feeling hassled and we are open to any ideas from business groups or the city in that regard.”

While Castelli added, “the city should ease up on the parking restrictions and build a parking lot.”

However, Bruce Bogan of Planet Press, who added a storefront to his business, feels the parking issue is not dispositive. If there are diminished revenues for businesses, he feels that the major factor is “a lot of people don’t know what they’re doing on The Drive. They are hurting and fighting with each other, not helping each other.”

Bogan’s location typifies the conflict between the city past and future. His older structure has affordable rents, but it still saw the closing of the unique Painted Pickle restaurant and eclectic furniture shop adjacent to it this past year. Meanwhile, Wilton Gables, across the street, erected more than 10,000 square feet of modern storefronts on The Drive. One was rented, swiftly closed, and the rest remains vacant, open, and for lease. And even though Wilton Drive is thriving for some, others would say the most popular sign on the drive is ‘for lease.’


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