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Mandalay surf shop owners plan for next wave in life

Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2014 at 10:11 AM

Bill and Linda McKenna are liquidating their retail store and selling the building to make way for a new craft beer brewery on Clearwater Beach.
CLEARWATER BEACH — While Florida’s west coast isn’t recognized as a popular surfing spot, a local well-liked surf shop has challenged that image for 35 years.
Since 1979, Bill McKenna and his wife, Linda, owners of Mandalay Surf Co., have accomplished what only a few business owners on Clearwater Beach have achieved — riding a wave of sustainability despite five recessions, countless tropical storms, and a body of water not conducive to surfing unless a tropical disturbance has passed by.
McKenna, who owns the surf shop and the building at 499 Mandalay Ave., is liquidating the retail store and selling the building to Paul O’Renick and Dennis Prescott of Clearwater Beach Brewing Co. They want to establish the first onsite craft beer brewery on the barrier island.
The store sells surfboards, skimboards, skateboards and a variety of beach apparel.
Because of the pending sale, McKenna declined to divulge details except that the deal is expected to be finalized within two months.
According to public records, the building’s current market value is $820,500. At the peak of the booming real estate market, it was valued at $1.1 million. The building is located at the southeast corner of Mandalay Avenue and Baymont Street.
McKenna, 72, credits quality products and strong customer service for his ability to stay in business for more than three decades in a beach community that hit its stride around the turn of the century.
For nearly the first two decades, 90 percent of his customer base was comprised of shoppers drawn from Tarpon Springs south to Bradenton.
In later years, and as traveling went from a hobby for the elite to being more accessible for the masses, his customer base shifted to a 50-50 split between locals and tourists. He began to notice a more international and sophisticated shopper demanding higher-end products.
“Those who travel to places like St. Thomas, St. John or Maui expect the same amenities when they come to Clearwater Beach,” he said.
“Good customer service” also helped bring people through his shop’s doors, McKenna said.
“If you crashed your board, you bring it here and we would repair it.”
Mandalay Surf Co. grew to have customers from all over the world, he said, and some sought his expertise to open a similar shop in their hometown.
“A customer, who is now a good friend, set up shop in England,” McKenna said. “I went over to help him out.”
As he reminisced about his business, he counted as most memorable the relationships and history he shares with his longtime customers.
“I have three generations of customers,” he said. “Kids come in and say, ‘You put my grandfather’s skateboard together.’ I remember when their fathers and grandfathers were kids. I know a lot about the people out here, and I’ve heard almost all their stories. This is a small town.”
McKenna often thought about retirement and where he might “hang ten” for the next chapter in his life.
“People thought I was crazy a couple years ago when I turned down a 20-year-lease from a major coffee shop.” He didn’t want the headaches that might come with being a long-term landlord. “Twenty years is a long lease; there were just too many risks.”
McKenna banked on the fact that one day the right opportunity might present itself because “this building is in a triple A location — a corner lot across from the Sandpearl (Resort), Belle Harbor (condos) and Clear Sky (Café). It’s a great spot.”
Then, last September, a “couple of fellows just strolled into the shop” and proposed a deal he decided he couldn’t refuse. “They were interested in buying the building.”
According to a development agreement submitted to the city, the owners of Clearwater Beach Brewing Co. plan to demolish the 64-year-old building to make way for a 3,900-square-foot, two-story structure. Construction is expected to begin in June, and the opening tentatively is slated for January. The total value of the project upon completion is estimated at $2.5 million.
McKenna said the owners of some surrounding businesses challenged the project, particularly that the city would allow the retail store to be converted into a restaurant without a zoning change. However, “it meets all the criteria of Beach by Design,” he said.
The project was vetted by the city planning staff in January and was found to meet all code and other requirements of Beach by Design, the city’s plan for development on the island, including the redevelopment of Mandalay Avenue as a “main street/retail street” that supports a wide range of up-scale restaurants, clubs and other entertainment considered to be in “short supply on the beach.”
“It’s competition, and there’s always going to be those averse to change,” McKenna said.
The next step for the brewery developers will be to apply for building permits, and the next task for McKenna is to liquidate his inventory.  He hired G.A. Wright of Denver, a professional store-closing sales company, to oversee that effort.
“It’s a big undertaking. They’re very methodical; they inventoried and documented everything. I couldn’t have done it,” he said.
Starting last week, prices on all merchandise were reduced, and deeper discounts will continue in a phased approach now through mid-April. Customer contests and prize drawings also are being held.
As for McKenna’s next personal endeavor, he’s been approached about starting an online store to hawk his trademark Mandalay Surf Co. merchandise or to sell his company logo.
“I would entertain either idea,” he said. “I just tell people that are interested to put their proposal in writing and how much they are willing to pay for it.”
While he and Linda, his wife of 53 years, have traveled extensively throughout Europe and to parts of Asia, his next target destination is South America. “I would like to go to Buenos Aires and (take) a tour of the Amazon River.”
The McKennas also plan to enjoy more time with their daughter, attorney Lynne Di Lella, son-in-law Vince, and grandsons Kevin, 21, a student at Florida Atlantic University, and Patrick, 18.
“And I’ll be hanging on Clearwater Beach,” Bill McKenna said, “since this is my home.”


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