By Eileen Zaffiro-Kean
The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A growing number of locals in Daytona Beach want to create a modernized version of Main Street. Long ago, the once-quaint Main street hummed with grocery stores,clothing stores, cafes, movie theaters and a dry cleaners. Nowadays it is now dominated by bars, vacant shops and empty lots.
Helen Humphreys can take you on a fascinating journey back to 20th century Main Street.
Humphreys can tell you about the afternoon Liberace burst into her small jewelry store on a mission to buy a huge, ornate candelabra. The flamboyant pianist was in town to play at The Peabody Auditorium, and suddenly there he was, in front of her with his well-coiffed black hair and one of his over-the-top costumes.
Mr. Showmanship raised his hands up to his face in excitement as he gazed at the candelabra and exclaimed, “Oh, I have to have it!”
Then there was the time Evel Knievel called Humphreys and asked if he could rent the empty storefront next to her jewelry shop.
The motorcycle daredevil, famous for jumping over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, wanted to sell his T-shirts and movies there during Bike Week and store one of his collector motorcycles.
“I was certain it was a kook calling,” Humphreys recalled. “I was rather shocked to see him drive up on a big black Harley dressed in black leather with flags flying. He walked in the store and I said, ‘Oh my gosh. You really are Evel Knievel.’ I did learn some cuss words that I didn’t even know existed.”
Knievel wound up renting her vacant space for six years and became Main Street’s most famous itinerant vendor, drawing long lines of people who just wanted to see the death-defying adventurer who once flew his motorcycle over 20 cars lined up side-by-side.
Humphreys, 83, has been working on the beachside corridor for nearly 70 years, starting as a 15-year-old hostess at a restaurant so popular it had to expand two times.
Her Main Street tales reach back to the 1940s and describe a once-quaint street that hummed with grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, clothing stores, cafes, lawyers’ offices, movie theaters, a gas station and dry cleaners.
Main Street patrons from decades ago would find today’s corridor unrecognizable. The artery through the middle of Daytona Beach’s oceanfront neighborhoods is now dominated by bars, vacant shops and empty lots. The street’s emptiness is interrupted only a handful of times a year with biker parties and street festivals — including Biketoberfest later this month.
Now, a growing number of locals — everyone from beachside residents to Main Street business owners to government leaders — want to create a modernized version of that charming yesteryear Main Street. Mayor Derrick Henry is one of those leading the community-wide conversation about rethinking Main Street’s future.
“We want it to be a place we can be proud of,” Henry said.
“This is a defining moment for the community to decide on a vision,” said Tony Grippa, chairman of the Beachside Redevelopment Committee that’s putting together a list of suggestions to improve the area between the Halifax River and Atlantic Ocean.
Volusia County formed the redevelopment committee in May, a few weeks after The Daytona Beach News-Journal’s publication of “Tarnished Jewel,” a series that examined the challenges facing the core beachside area. Among the greatest challenges: the current state of Main Street.
“There’s a good argument that how Main Street has been the past 20 years is not desirable to people in the community; otherwise they’d be there,” Grippa said.
City Commissioner Aaron Delgado contends it’s going to take a willingness to evolve into something different.
“We’ll need a major paradigm shift,” said Delgado, an attorney whose law office and home are both on the beachside.
“It can’t just be Mardi Gras, desert, Mardi Gras, desert.”
Recapturing solid year-round business will have to come from efforts of locals, not a deep-pocketed developer who gallops in on a white horse, Delgado said.
“We’ve been waiting for Prince Charming to come, but the reality is it’s a Match.com world and we need to put ourselves out there,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to get outside investors unless we discover gold. I don’t want to wait for magic.”
‘Sodom and Gomorrah’
Over the past 35 years, the city has poured $120 million into the redevelopment area that includes Main Street, but the corridor linking the river and ocean is in some of the worst shape of its existence.
There’s disagreement about how to resuscitate Main Street, and whether it’s time to get Bike Week and Biketoberfest off the road.
Those quandaries are being tackled by the new Beachside Redevelopment Committee and other local leaders, but there’s not even a consensus on how Main Street devolved into what it is today.
Humphreys, who also ran a bikini shop and men’s clothing store on Main Street in the 1950s and 1960s, is certain the turning point toward trouble was the city’s 1990 road project that tore up Main Street for nine months.
“They dug up the street, placed barricades and just simply said, ‘Closed,’ ” she said. “All the side streets, or most of them, suddenly became one way exiting Main Street. So how would people ever reach the businesses?”
Humphreys rattled off the names of eight businesses she said went bankrupt or moved. She recalled one family that ran a beloved restaurant took out a second mortgage on their home to try to keep the business alive. It didn’t work.
“It broke their hearts and it broke them,” Humphreys said. “They ended up losing their house and their business.”
As merchants went out of business, companies that profit mainly from Bike Week snatched up the empty buildings, she said. But she doesn’t blame Bike Week and Biketoberfest for Main Street’s problems.
For years the street still thrived in all the months between biker events, no matter how rowdy they got. As far back as the solid business years of the 1950s, she recalls annual motorcycle events being so raucous that firefighters deluged bikers with their humongous hoses to tame them.
Ken Peters, who has run the historic Main Street Barber Shop for 24 years, said the advent of shopping centers and malls in the 1970s contributed to Main Street’s desolation. But he also heaps blame for the road’s struggles directly on the shoulders of Bike Week, which takes place every March.
“Main Street is like it is now because of Bike Week,” Peters said. “Bike Week has created this.”
He recalled one Main Street bar run off by the city in the early 1980s “was worse than Sodom and Gomorrah.”
He said the annual biker party that draws hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists has driven up Main Street rents so high that most entrepreneurs who want to take a stab at diversifying the corridor can’t afford it. Humphreys said she’s seen renters charged “unbelievable amounts of money.”
Peters thinks those rents are going to start sliding because the number of bikers coming every year has been dropping. The event used to draw 500,000 people every spring, but he doesn’t think that many motorcycles have rolled into town for 15 years. Peters, 61, sees a lot more bald heads and gray hair than he did 20 years ago, and he predicts the event will die off with the Baby Boomers who seem to be the last generation that will embrace the wild street party.
He said bar owners, merchants and itinerant vendors are already telling him their profits have been falling over the past seven years or so. Peters predicts businesses are going to be forced to become year-round operations to survive, and he thinks that will happen soon.