June 18, 2020
By: Tiffany Razzano
PLANT CITY – At a time when there are still many uncertainties about the long-term economic impact of COVID-19 on small businesses around the country – many having already shut their doors for good, including some in the Tampa Bay area – downtown Plant City seems to be thriving.
“Our downtown – our city in general, but really our downtown – has been so resilient during COVID-19 and the protests. We’re so fortunate,” said Jerilyn Rumbarger, executive director, Plant City Main Street (PCMS). “It’s refreshing to come out of COVID and to be able to look back and say, ‘Wow, we were so strong through it and we’re going to be strong.’”
Five new businesses will open downtown by early fall, she said. These new businesses will be located in proximity to one another with four opening on South Evers Street, including The Tipsy Bookworm, a used bookstore that serves craft beer and wine; Three Hands Mead Company, a taproom serving craft mead, a honey wine; Crumbles and Cream, a European-style café and bakery; and CJ’s Downtown, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. Nearby, The Industry, an eatery, and entertainment venue will open on South Collins Street.
An additional three businesses – a pizza parlor, a boutique, and a hair salon – have plans to open by the end of the year, Rumbarger said.
The city has intentionally focused on revitalizing downtown Plant City over the past two years, partnering with Plant City Main Street, a nonprofit organization dedicated to facilitating growth and change downtown.
Together they brought in Community Design Solutions, a consulting firm, “to evaluate where we were at and where we want to go,” she said. “That was really the point that I remember when everything shifted.”
This downtown study resulted in “a super awesome road map,” Rumbarger said. “It told us ‘to get from point A to point B, here’s what you have to do.’ (CDS) broke it down into timeframes that worked for us and the city, and they helped us start implementing things. It was a blueprint of what we wanted downtown to look and feel like.”
The city’s initial projects focused on improving downtown’s appearance, including landscaping upgrades, fresh paint for light posts, and the installation of new wayfinding signs. Meanwhile, PCMS partnered with the Plant City Arts Council to design new downtown banners.
Once this early work was completed, downtown Plant City felt “branded,” she said. “It felt like you entered into a community, rather than an area.”
Rumbarger wasn’t part of the PCMS staff while this work was being done, but she was still invested in the area’s future growth. At the time, she and her ex-fiancé wanted to open a taproom and wine bar downtown. Their dream was thwarted by an archaic city ordinance that prohibited the sale of wine and beer by downtown businesses unless they were a full restaurant with more than 100 seats and at least 2,500 square feet.
Advocating for change, in the fall of 2018 they began encouraging the City Commission to tweak this law, which would allow more businesses to open downtown, she said. The new alcohol ordinance passed in April 2019.
Their craft beer and wine bar, Roots, was the first business to open under the new law, paving the way for others to follow.
“It was the business that opened the door for a lot of these other businesses, these entrepreneurs to explore downtown,” Rumbarger said. “It opened the door for a more youthful vibe downtown.”
She and her fiancé eventually split, and she stepped away from the bar. PCMS, impressed by her work fighting to change the alcohol ordinance and her passion for the downtown community, offered her the executive director position.
She’s “loved” the work so far, she said. “We’re working to bring something we’ve felt was so needed for downtown. We’re bringing it into a new age. It feels really good.”
She already has her eyes on other outdated laws she’d like to change for the benefit of small businesses, including ones that prohibit new murals and food trucks.
“We want to amend them and bring them into modern times,” she said. “They’ve gone unnoticed because people haven’t shown any interest, but we’re evolving.”
Plant City’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which addresses slum conditions and blight in portions of the city, including downtown, now offers incentive grants to business and building owners. Food-related enhancement grants are available to new businesses, while both new and established businesses have access to funding for interior and façade projects.
Rumbarger and the PCMS ensure all potential new businesses know these funds are available.
“That’s up to $35,000 in matching grants. It’s a huge incentive when you’re opening up a business,” she said.
It was a conversation with Rumbarger about these incentives that convinced Matt Morrow, brewer and owner of The Tipsy Bookworm, that downtown Plant City should be the future home of his bookstore bar.
“The city is fully embracing new businesses coming downtown. They want to revive downtown and they’re putting their money where their mouth is,” he said. “The bones have always been there, but, obviously, Plant City has had a rap as being an old city. Now they’re embracing change and it’s exciting to see young business owners jumping in there. I just can’t wait to see what it will become.”
Cody Lenz, the owner of Three Hands Mead, was also drawn to the incentives and saw the area’s potential. Since mead is the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world, he wanted to open in an older neighborhood. He visited many historic districts throughout Central Florida, but none felt right; many were too depressed and rundown.
The energy in downtown Plant City felt different, he said. Having lived just outside the city for the past six years, he knows the downtown neighborhood well and senses the changes coming.
“It’s a place we’ve liked coming to, but we’ve seen that it’s lacking a lot,” Lenz said. “But we can also see the growth coming and we want to be part of it. The matching grant program was also a huge selling point.”
Meanwhile, Grit Rambusch, a German pastry chef who has been operating Crumbles & Cream at markets in Celebration and Lakeland, looked at properties in Lakeland and Tampa before finding the right space for her brick-and-mortar shop in downtown Plant City. She was seeking a “walkable downtown” like the small town where she grew up.
“I’m used to the European aesthetic of downtown areas and wanted something with character,” she said.
She found Plant City more affordable than the “ridiculous” rents of nearby cities, and its matching incentive grants were a bonus, Rambusch said. “Plant City made it very easy for me. They were very welcoming and the city is supporting us. I just love the community.”
Jake Austin, president, the Plant City Economic Development Corporation, said the city has grown significantly over the past decade. During that time, job growth increased by 45% citywide, not just downtown.
“That’s what’s generating all the new retail and commercial development,” he said. “Downtown is seeing a new day because of all this activity.”
He also credits the Plant City Main Street organization with “reenergizing downtown.”
Austin said, “These downtown merchants and business leaders came together with the goal of increasing foot traffic and commerce downtown. There’s been a lot of activity from their efforts.”
When a statewide stay-at-home order forced many businesses to temporarily close during the COVID-19 pandemic in recent months, he was concerned about the long-term effect on economic growth downtown.
“We were fearful that not only would new projects come to a halt but that the progress and what they’ve been trying to build for the past few years would be upended,” he said.
The opposite happened. Confidence in the downtown Plant City economy remained high and new businesses moved forward with their plans to open, Austin said. “We turned the switch back on and it went somewhat back to normal. It’s a better scenario than we expected.”
Lenz said the pandemic forced him to push back Three Hands’ opening a few months, but otherwise, he was unaffected by it. He remains excited about becoming part of the downtown fabric.
“If we opened before the pandemic, I would have been more nervous,” he said.
Rambusch signed her lease just before the economy shut down. She felt some nerves as she read the news about the global pandemic and a grim economic outlook, but she’s confident in Plant City’s downtown growth.
“There’s still hope out there, especially downtown,” she said, adding that the area wasn’t as hard hit as other parts of the Tampa Bay region because it relies less on tourism dollars.
Austin said most of the city’s major employers are food production and packaging companies, which were deemed essential during the pandemic and remained open.
“Having that niche in Plant City helped us weather the COVID-19 storm fairly well,” he said.
Not many communities can say that, he added. “It’s kind of unique that we have this sort of (new business) activity (after the shutdown). Not only did it not drop, it maintained and seems to be growing.”
The city “wasn’t completely immune” to the coronavirus crisis, though, he said. Some businesses, such as retailers and restaurants, were forced to close, and the EDC and other organizations worked to ensure they secured Paycheck Protection Program loans.
“We wanted to find a way to keep their workers employed,” he said.
The EDC, PCMS, city government, and the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce also worked together to support and communicate with businesses as they pivoted their operations to takeout orders and online sales.
“We all really just worked together and came together as a community, and unified during the pandemic,” Rumbarger said.
Meanwhile, post-shutdown, as businesses downtown reopened, PCMS launched a local stimulus program at the end of May. Through this Downtown Dollars program, shoppers purchased $5 vouchers that can be redeemed for $10 off purchases at participating businesses. Those businesses then turn the vouchers in for a cash reimbursement. PCMS invested $10,000 into this program, selling all 2,000 of its $5 vouchers in less than a week.
“With a matching $10,000 on the consumer end, that’s $20,000 recirculated into participating downtown businesses,” Rumbarger said.
Despite the pandemic, there’s still a lot of energy downtown and she anticipates more businesses opening in the district.
“The more businesses we have downtown, the more walkable downtown becomes, which then makes downtown a destination,” she said. “I think that’s the direction that we’re headed. I want it to be a place where people live, work and play. And all of these new businesses are giving our community and people outside out community a reason to play downtown.”