PUNTA GORDA — As the city and its residents eye the future with the Citywide Master Plan − a guide to future development in the city − Punta Gorda business owners are calling for more retail shops downtown.
What's needed in downtown Punta Gorda?
“More (retail) shops means more people coming into town,” said Debbie Malinoski, owner of HipNotique, a women’s apparel shop in downtown. “It’s a snowball effect. If you go into any other big downtown area like Venice or Sarasota, etc., they have tons of stores. People come here a lot and they say they want to spend the day and after being here for an hour they go, ‘What else is there to do? Where else can we shop?’”
Malinoski is celebrating her tenth year of being in business. Next door, Copperfish Books is celebrating its seventh year.
“Filling in these missing gaps (downtown) is extremely important to us,” said Cathy Graham, Copperfish owner, during a recent Punta Gorda City Council meeting. “Downtown is a heart beat ... an essential gathering space for all of us and a gem to be proud of. We take our family and our friends and we hang out and visitors come to hang out and we all enjoy ourselves and we want our downtown to be warm and friendly, inviting, and also we find it enriching and a place for folks.”
Despite their longevity, both Malinoski and Graham have had their share of challenges along the way.
“So you run ragged for three to four months and the rest of the year is a drought and you have to be resourceful and lucky to survive,” Graham said. “It’s strange that Punta Gorda is so seasonal and Port Charlotte is less so. We want to see Punta Gorda develop a year-round population.”
The city’s seasonal residents are key to staying in business downtown.
“Summers are tough,” Malinoski said. “The snowbirds come down and I love a snowbird ... they sustain who we are. They have made us become what we are ... all of Charlotte County. The county would not be looking the way it looks without snowbirds coming down here with their tax dollars and spending their money.”
Downtown, retail space
“For other similar businesses to mine,” Graham said, “to create a (support system) that will help all of our business (downtown and) get beyond survival mode and actually live ... we need more space.
“You need more shops downtown,” Graham said. “You need more available space. Just having a few of us … retail shops ... is a task load ... if you want your favorite restaurants and shops to be here, you need more of us.”
One way the city can help can help is by loosening the city’s land development regulations downtown and allowing taller buildings to be developed − one of the many ideas presented in the Citywide Master Plan.
“Developers that know what’s going on with progress in the world,” Malinoski said, “they understand that we need to go up. We’re not talking about skyscrapers here. We’re talking about four- maybe five-story buildings that are going to have retail and restaurants and office buildings and maybe a parking deck. You have to have that. There is nowhere here in this area to go wide, you have to go up.”
If someone wanted to build in the City Center zoning district (downtown) they would have to build a minimum of two stories (26 feet above base flood elevation) and a maximum height of 50 feet above base flood elevation, according to Melissa Reichert, spokesperson for the city.
“There are some developers that state the maximum height is too low,” Reichert told the Sun.
Both the two-story requirement and the 50-foot height limit have both been limiting factors in development within the City Center Zoning classification, she said
“Additional retail is critical for our city center to add critical mass to what is currently offered,” said John Wright, Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce president. “We do have businesses interested in coming here; however, currently there is little if no retail space available, until some of our empty lots begin to come out of the ground.”
The City Council will have the opportunity to approve the final version of the Citywide Master Plan in November. How that plan will be implemented is still largely in question.
“The city has to develop,” Malinoski said. “There are no existing buildings to put any kind of retail shops in. We are inundated with fabulous restaurants and spas, but the retail end is just lost for people who really want to walk around all day and shop and spend money in town.
“We really only have a book store, an interior decorator/gift store, women’s fashion (at mine), an art store and a gift store and that’s it in the downtown area.”