TAMPA, Fla. – Following the mad rush of Black Friday, the focus turned to small businesses on Saturday.
But in Seminole Heights, Small Business Saturday has taken on a bigger meaning in the wake of four unsolved murders in the area at the hands of a suspected serial killer.
"We just want people to know you don’t have to avoid Seminole Heights," said Urban Bungalow owner David Hansen.
Hansen has owned his small shop on Florida Avenue, which offers the "essentials for everyday living," for four years. It recently expanded to include a coffee bar.
"We came into this neighborhood where people were like, ‘Why are you opening a retail store here, nobody’s going to come,'" he said. "But it’s our home, it’s where our friends are, it’s where our employees live, it’s where we live.”
Hansen says businesses across the board, including his, have taken a hit since the murders. But he also says the impact goes beyond the bottom line.
“We take it personally. It’s hard to talk about," Hansen said, as his eyes welled up. "It’s hard to talk about business when there’s been four people killed. The loss of four people is always on our minds."
While it's a conflicting feeling, what is clear is that people just aren't showing up to businesses in the area like they were before the murders began.
Hansen says the change is especially pronounced after nightfall, hitting restaurants like his next-door neighbor Rooster and the Till that much harder, where reservations on a typical Saturday have dropped from more than 130 to less than 50.
It's a reality that made Saturday's fifth annual Holiday Shop Hop for small businesses that much more important, shoppers said.
"Nobody gets to control what we do," said Seminole Heights resident Maureen O'Brien. "It just doesn’t happen."
O'Brien, who was shopping with a couple of her friends, said she's made a point to get out more in the neighborhood.
She noted crowds for the annual shopping event seemed smaller than usual, which she blamed on people not understanding the geography of the neighborhood and where the murders have happened.
"Everybody looks at Seminole Heights in its entirety and don’t necessarily understand that we do have segments," she said as she stood outside Urban Bungalow in an area on the north side of the neighborhood, west of I-275.
All of the murders have happened in southeast Seminole Heights, east of I-275.
“Part of it really is truly trying to make sure that we are supporting our neighborhood, and we’re encouraging our friends who live outside the neighborhood to also support the neighborhood.”
About two-dozen shops and restaurants participated in the annual Holiday Shop Hop.
The murders only exasperated a lull in sales for area businesses which had been struggling to recover after Hurricane Irma.
The holiday shopping rush will prove to be the biggest test yet, Hansen said.
"This is the make-or-break time for a lot of businesses in Seminole Heights," he said. "If you don’t come out and you don’t support, a lot of the businesses you may love may not be here this time next year.”
As part of the effort to keep people coming back on the weekends during December, Seminole Heights' first-ever tree lighting will take place next weekend from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Dec. 2 at the Graham Building.
Currently there is a $110,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest and conviction of those responsible for the killings.
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