Entrepreneurs, the city of Orlando needs your help. It needs you to invest in Parramore, the long-blighted neighborhood on downtown's west side that, if you believe city officials, is on the cusp of booming once again. If you're interested, there are a myriad of loans and grants you can apply for, and the city will bend over backward to help you out.
That was the message of the Parramore pep rally held on the ninth floor of City Hall Nov. 16. There was catered barbecue, corn bread and chipped beef, as well as speeches from Parramore business owners encouraging other potential business owners to "Get Invested!," as the gathering was titled. Mayor Buddy Dyer even put in a brief appearance, long enough to fill up his plate at the buffet, give a cheerleading 10-minute speech and zip out the door.
That same week, however, the city's code enforcement department made a move that undercut some of the very entrepreneurs who have staked their financial fortunes on Parramore. Code enforcers slapped $100-a-day fines and a lien on the owner of two free parking lots on West Church Street that Parramore business owners use to give their customers a place to park, because street parking is scarce. The lots were unpaved and unstriped, which is against city code. The lots' owner, Carolina-Florida Property, immediately put up signs that violators would be towed and closed the lots down.
"It just killed us," says Henri Calleri. In February 2003 Calleri opened Uncle Henry's Country Kitchen on the bottom floor of the CityView building on West Church Street. He had sold the first Uncle Henry's near Michigan Street and Orange Avenue and put $500,000 into this new diner, which quickly became one of downtown's hottest breakfast-and-lunch spots.
When Calleri moved in, there were just 24 free street-parking spaces along the West Church Street block, he says. Between his restaurant, apartment visitors and the pharmacy next door, those filled quickly. The spots were also designated as two-hour parking, which meant if his customers stayed too long, they'd get a ticket.
The only other parking lay deep in the heart of Parramore, an area filled with crime and panhandlers.
The answer was the dirt lot across the street, owned by Carolina-Florida Property. Calleri leased it for $100 a month and paid about $3,000 a year in insurance. He paid to erect a wooden stockade fence to separate the lot from neighboring areas that he says were havens of crime and drug use. He paid to have wood chips spread to keep the lot as clean as possible. And he and his employees kept watch on it, to ensure their customers weren't being harassed.
It wasn't only Calleri's customers who benefited. He allowed other businesses and visitors to the apartment complex to use his lot as well, free of charge.
For more than two years, that parking lot played a central role in keeping Uncle Henry's afloat.
Business was good. Tables filled up, and some days a line formed, waiting to be seated. Calleri's homestyle cooking earned excellent reviews from this newspaper and the Orlando Sentinel.
Then it all came crashing down. Carolina-Florida told Calleri in mid-November that he couldn't use the lot, but the behind-the-scenes battle had been going on for a few months.
Toward the end of May, code enforcers cited Carolina-Florida Property for having unimproved parking lots, says Aida Martin, Carolina-Florida Property's real estate agent. That's against city code, even though the city sometimes uses a grass field it owns near the TD Waterhouse Centre for overflow parking.
Martin took her case to the city's code enforcement board. The board instructed her to either pave the two lots (the one Calleri used and another near Church Street and Division Avenue), get a temporary parking permit from the city or shut them down. Martin says the board was sympathetic, but code enforcement and Carolina-Florida were unable to reach an agreement.
When the 60 days were up, Martin says she had no choice but to shut the lots down. The alternative was to pave the lots, she says, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"I went and apologized to all those merchants," she says. "It's gonna kill `their` business, but what can I do?"
It was just as bad for the business owners who relied on Carolina-Florida's other lot down the street as it was for Calleri. "The merchants in Parramore are upset," Martin says. "It put a big cut in their business."
Citing the lots reflected a larger code enforcement sweep of Parramore, code enforcement manager Mike Rhodes says. Carolina-Florida's other lot had received complaints because commercial vehicles were stored there, Rhodes says, and it would be unfair to cite one and not the other. He blames the business owners' problems on Carolina-Florida.
"Carolina-Florida Property is quite capable of making improvements in order to accommodate their tenants," Rhodes says. And they could have easily applied for, and likely received, a temporary permit good for six months. Instead, he says, "they took a scorched-earth approach" and shut the lots down altogether.
To make matters worse for Calleri, the police opened a new substation on the bottom floor of CityView that same month, and now three of the 24 street spaces are reserved for police cars. (Some cops, he says, still park in his old lot. They're not likely to be towed.)
Three other businesses Ã? a dress shop, a hair salon and a pizzeria Ã? are all scheduled to move into this strip soon, and that's going to clog the parking situation even more.
When the lot shut down, Calleri took an immediate hit. Sales plummeted 70 percent, he says. He laid off nearly half of his staff.
And were it not for the generosity of his landlord, Bank of America, which allows him to defer his $5,800-a-month rent until the matter is settled, he would close the restaurant and focus entirely on his South Orange Avenue location.
Calleri fought back. A few weeks after the towing sign went up, "some mean old Italian guy" took it down, he says wryly. (Without a posted sign, it's illegal to tow.) He also fired off a letter to Mayor Buddy Dyer and city commissioner Daisy Lynum, asking for their help. To date, he's received no response.
Martin also asked Lynum to intercede. She says Lynum was upset, but again, nothing has changed. Commissioner Phil Diamond said he would support granting Carolina-Florida a variance to allow the parking lot to stay open.
When Calleri moved his restaurant here, the city made a lot of promises about keeping panhandlers away and crime down. Two years later, many Parramore business owners still consider crime and the large number of homeless people the major obstacles to Parramore's resurgence. In the long term, remedying those problems will do more for Parramore than anything else.
But right now, Calleri and his fellow Parramore investors need the city to act, and quickly.
For Parramore to beat the odds, Calleri says, "Everybody has to be a brother. The city is not being a team player."[email protected]
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