For more than 60 years, barbers at Cole's Barber & Beauty have swapped neighborhood stories and political banter with customers while clipping and shaping their hair.
"There's a lot of history here," said 89-year-old Robert L. Cole Sr., owner and patriarch of a family business that has been an anchor for East Tampa's traditional mom-and-pop economy. He has fostered political careers and mentored future business owners.
Though retired, he hardly has slowed down.
He tools around town in his truck, checking on business interests including two other barber shops. In recent weeks Cole has overseen the renovation of the facade of his original shop at 3407 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
And he is touting the benefits of a matching grant program he credits with making the project possible. The program, he says, spruces up the business community and brings local jobs.
About $41,000 of the approximately $97,000 renovation of his shop will come from the city's façade improvement grant program offered in three special tax districts: Drew Park, East Tampa and Ybor City.
The program might end next year if the economy fails to rebound and property values remain flat.
"It's all going to depend on tax revenues and what projects communities want done," said Bob McDonaugh, the city's acting administrator for economic development.
Cole is among more than 20 people in the past two years who have received up to $50,000 in individual matching grants for façade improvements to their businesses. About $864,000 has been awarded since 2010. Private investment in these projects has totaled about $3.5 million.
East Tampa is the city's largest special tax district and spans neighborhoods such as Jackson Heights, Belmont Heights, V.M. Ybor and Southeast Seminole Heights. The idea for the façade grant program emerged from a volunteer advisory committee of the East Tampa Community Revitalization Partnership.
Each district uses a portion of local property taxes collected within its borders to pay for community-based projects, largely to improve infrastructure.
"This is a blessing for [business owners] in the community," said Cole. "It gives them an opportunity to upgrade."
Cole is repairing or replacing doors, and adding lattice work and arches to his shop's façade. He hasn't settled on a color scheme. "I want something that will stand out," he said.
On the job front, he said, "You're getting people off the unemployment roll. That's what I'm pushing for."
But the program this year is being sustained with unspent money allocated in previous years. Drew Park and Ybor City each have about $150,000 remaining; East Tampa has slightly more than $150,000. McDonough said there is some chance East Tampa and Drew Park could have money available through 2013 but in Ybor, where demand has outstripped revenues, that is unlikely.
The benefit to neighborhoods has been evident, McDonaugh said. "What we're attempting to do is encourage people along major corridors to improve the appearance of buildings," he said. "It increases property values, makes neighborhoods look nicer, attracts businesses and allows us to leverage public dollars with private dollars and have folks invest in their communities."
On Hillsborough Avenue, for example, McDonaugh points to the Speaker Exchange, where a project transformed an entire block into something "eye-popping."
Projects have been small and large.
Carlos Nunez, owner of Drew Park's Quality Rollers of Tampa, received the smallest grant at nearly $8,000, about half the cost of his total construction costs, city records show. He paved the parking lot, painted the building, replaced fences and gutters and added awnings.
Renovations of two Ybor historic structures, known as the San Souci buildings, were the most expensive with an initial estimate of more than $660,000. The project received $100,000 in grants.
The Ferlita Macaroni Factory, at 1607 N. 22nd St., also received a grant which helped salvage the 90-year-old building after a partial roof collapse almost led to its demolition.
East Tampa awarded the most grants, with 10; Ybor had nine grants; and Drew Park had two. Ybor had the largest share of money at about $472,000, with East Tampa second at about $338,000. Drew Park's grants totalled about $52,000.
The first grant went to Eric Schiller, owner of Gaspar's Grotto at 1807 Seventh Ave. in Ybor. He remodeled and expanded his restaurant, creating a patio dining area and a kitchen façade that mirrors Ybor's traditional casita-style housing.
Across the street, Carmine's Restaurant, in business since 1948, also got a makeover.
"We agree we have the prettiest corner now in Ybor," said Schiller.
The façade grant "relieved the financial pressure on major renovations of the galley [kitchen]," he said. "Our debt load is lower and that allowed for the expansion."
And business increased after the renovations. "It helps in making the place more appealing," Schiller said. "Curb appeal directly correlates to butts in the seats. It's fun to sit out there."