SEBRING - At Dogtown, USA, a downtown store that sell products for dog owners, business was slow Thursday, owner Lora Todd recalled that evening.
That made Todd all the happier when after her normal closing time of 5:30 p.m. "a couple walking by with their dog stopped and bought some treats for their dog," she said.
In times past, Todd would not have received that business. But on Thursday night, she joined owners of several businesses that kept their doors open until 8 p.m.
Ronald L. Thomas, owner of Capt. Ron's Mercantile, was instrumental in organizing the push to keep businesses open longer on Thursday evenings. Although it doesn't quite get dark by 8 p.m., the weekly event was named "Sebring after dark."
"We're locking out 40 percent of our potential business," Thomas said, by closing stores between 5 and 6 p.m. He said he wants to draw in customers who might normally after work go to businesses along Highway 27.
So far business has been slow to non-existent, he conceded. But Thomas said he's in it for the long haul, believing that as the changed hours get more publicity, more people will come.
"We haven't put out a lot of publicity," he said.
Earlier this year, the City Council provided money to plan six new events to draw in people to downtown. But Councilman John Clark opposed that, saying that businesses refuse to help themselves by staying open at night.
But the merchants who have started opening late on Thursdays voiced hopes that others will follow.
Beverly Brannan, who has an art business in Galleria 301 on the circle, said she's been "pleasantly surprised" about the number of people so far who have walked in the business.
Regardless of the success of Sebring After Dark, Vanessa Carr, owner of NEW4U, said it's part of her plan to remain open until 8 p.m. Her clothing business attracts young people who like to walk around downtown after it gets cooler during the evening, Carr said.
"There's potential to make money, but because everyone has been closed they don't make it," she said.
Linda Tucker, owner of Linda's Books and Such, said she sees that potential and plans to remain open on Thursday's for the long haul.
In the past, some have said that getting more restaurants is key to attracting the foot traffic that would sustain other businesses.
But Thomas said the situation could be the reverse. With increased foot traffic from Sebring After Dark, some may be encouraged to open more restaurants.
Thomas said that plans call for entertainment downtown for at least four Thursdays.