Winter Park’s Park Avenue looking to reclaim bustling vibe in a post-pandemic world

Winter Park has long been a place where locals can people-and-dog watch, flight of rosé at hand, from the Park Avenue sidewalk in front of The Wine Room or where tourists escape the theme parks to soak up some Central Florida art and culture at the Polasek Museum.

That vibe is fading, another casualty of the prolonged public health crisis that has many people avoiding crowds and retreating to their homes with takeout instead of lingering at a sidewalk table.

At least four shops along the tony retail stretch have already closed and many of the 140 others have reduced their hours. The city has temporarily stopped organizing the type of street events that make Winter Park a regional hub.

And last month shop owners at a meeting for the Park Avenue District reported businesses losses of up to 40%, said Sara Grafton, president of the group.

She said the organization has shifted from its traditional marketing and historic preservation work to finding ways to help save the businesses.

“We truly have almost pivoted and we are serving right now as a COVID-response organization, trying to get through these next few months,” she said.

Stores like Dear Jane, a Park Avenue boutique, are relying heavily on online sales to make up for a decrease in foot traffic.

Owner Megan Abide said she’s grateful for customers who are supporting her from home, but laments the loss of the personal exchanges with clients inside her shop, where she takes care to create just the right ambiance.

“It’s helping us stay afloat but it’s also that sole thing that we’ve always wanted to avoid because you want to be different from the big guys,” she said. “We are our store’s experience, where you come in and we know you by name and we can cater to you and you don’t have to drive on I-4 and go to the big box stores.”

Abide said she is adjusting her retail plan weekly depending on the latest virus case numbers in Orange County, which affects how comfortable people are with leaving their homes. Early morning and evening hours are available for customers to make an appointment for a private shopping experience.

“Is it economically savvy to send one of my employees 30 minutes away to [deliver] a $40 candle? Probably not,” Abide said. “But to me, it is in the long run, because I’m trying to cultivate and maintain those relationships with my clients.”

The fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is reshaping not just how people spend money amid soaring local unemployment numbers, but also how they gather and socialize. As a result, even the cultural mainstays, which are often party or wedding venues, are taking a hit.

Debbie Komanski, longtime executive director of the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, said even her staff is wary of big crowds because many are older volunteers who want to avoid getting sick.

“It feels very different than the [economic] downturn in 2008,” Komanski said. “There’s an entirely different vibe. I think the nonstop uncertainty drives a lot of the decision making.”

The city said it is aiming to help local businesses survive by collaborating with the district and the Chamber of Commerce to promote curb side pick up for retail orders and take out dining options. Portions of some street blocks are already marked off for five minute parking.

But there won’t be a repeat soon of the Mother’s Day weekend street closures along Park Avenue and parts of the Hannibal Square neighborhood.

“Because of the inclement and uncomfortable weather Florida offers during the summer months, outdoor dining or activities are not ideal,” city spokeswoman Clarissa Howard wrote in an email.

The city will evaluate options for the fall and winter and is considering using side streets and alleyways for outdoor activities, she said.

Ellen Prague has watched Park Avenue evolve over more than three decades. She retired two years ago and closed The Paper Shop on the north end of the avenue.

She recalled how the district has survived earlier recessions and predicted it would withstand this one, too.

“I think everyone will survive this crisis but it will be different,” Prague said. “It’s still a very unique community and a very unique business district. Park Avenue has always been a place that other towns and cities try to imitate.”

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