This upcoming September, the well known University Shoppes plaza just outside of UCF will undergo preparations for it’s eventual leveling. But the arrival of construction crews and inspectors will mark the departure of another group – the local businesses in the plaza.
The 14-acre property, purchased by Texas-based American Campus Communities Inc., is to be remade into a 220,113-square-foot
student housing complex, complete with a 10-story, 2,355-space parking garage, according to the Orlando Business Journal. Demolition and eventual construction is set to begin at the end of the year.
The multi-level, apartment style housing will reserve the first floor of the complex for retail and related businesses, but the promise of opportunities to come does little to combat the tough choices that the plaza’s current businesses owners face this summer.
“I was notified the second week of May,” says Betty Whitcomb, owner of Underground Bluz, a longtime bar found in the plaza. Whitcomb says that originally, she was given until May 31 to vacate the premises, but after communicating the “impossibility” of such a fast move, she was able to extend the deadline to June 30.
Whitcomb opened her business 10 years ago in the plaza, and celebrated her bar’s 10th anniversary this past April. Now, she’s counting her remaining merchandise and planning the remaining weeks of operation – she isn’t relocating.
“I had thought about going somewhere else, but then I got an opportunity to move to Colorado and I said, ‘Let’s go,’” says Whitcomb. “Sunday I’m going out there to find a house and then I’m coming back and shutting this place down.”
American Campus Communities paid more than $27 million for the shopping plaza, the base of operations for such businesses as World Famous Burgers & Beer, Knight Library, Dungeon Lounge, Lazy Moon, Fubar, Broadway Pizza, Shamrock Liquors, El Cerro and Jeremiah’s Italian Ice.
Though many are looking at new locations, most have not yet settled on a new property and future plans remain uncertain for many like Millie Creighton, owner of Millie’s Jamaican Cafe.
“It’s a very stressful situation,” says Creighton who has been in business there for more than seven years. “Small places like these are where the people love to come and eat their food; it’s something different.”
Business owners say talks about turning the shopping center into student housing have been circulating for years throughout the plaza’s 25 years of operation. But for many who have been part of the plaza for years, like Shamrock Liquors, who have been on the property for 20 years, May’s notice comes as surprise.
“Before this, it was just noise,” says Whitcomb. “We’ve been hearing this for years of course, but it’s finally here.”
Though upsetting, some owners have found new locations in the area, like the owners of Greeks & More and the plaza’s Indian Market. As for the others, the relative cost of property rental and buildout along University Boulevard and its surrounding locations may be too high to feasibly continue business, making moving on an uncertain possibility.
“The smaller you are, the less money you have,” says Creighton. “You don’t just do it for this, [tapping her pocket], when you’re small; you do it for this [placing her hand over her heart]. When you sit here and you enjoy your food, and I watch you suck that bone or scrape that plate, it’s such a joy in my heart to watch you eat what I prepare. But we are the people that don’t have the money to just go out and get another one.”
By Victor Ocasio