CLEARWATER — Merchants on Cleveland Street, the heart of the city's sagging downtown, have pegged their hopes for renewal on a revamped Capitol Theatre reopening next week and a new Clearwater Marine Aquarium nearby in a few years.
But another recent downtown unveiling several blocks south — the Church of Scientology's Flag Building — has emptied Cleveland Street of many if not most of the hundreds of uniformed church workers who had for years thronged the street, patronizing its restaurants and shops.
And merchants are feeling the pinch.
"They don't have enough time probably to walk over here and back for lunch," said Robert Henschen, co-owner of Bob and Daughter's Produce.
Sales have fallen off by about half at his store since the Flag Building opened in mid November, said Henschen, mostly because of the sag in church-related traffic.
Other merchants reported similar declines. Tony's Pizza is down about 35 percent. Other businesses such as Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts looked noticeably emptier recently, but their managers didn't respond to requests for comment.
Cafe 421 closed its doors on Nov. 28. The evaporation of Scientology patronage was the final blow, said owner David Cramer.