Strip Mall Funeral Home Taking Heat From Opponents

April 13, 2011
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imageBob Healy knew that putting a funeral home in a deserted strip shopping center would be a bit unorthodox, but he said he had a good reason to try something different.

“I’m the No. 1 Hispanic funeral provider in the area,” Healy said of his Buenaventura Lakes business, Funeraria San Juan, in Osceola County. “So, naturally, for a second location, I chose to go to another area with a high concentration of Hispanics where I could get good real estate at a good price.”

He picked an empty restaurant building at The Shoppes of Kissimmee, a 1980s strip shopping center in the heart of Poinciana. The area is 51 percent Hispanic, according to the 2010 Census, and because there’s so much commercial space available there, Healy got a good deal.

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But the idea of opening a funeral home in the strip center has been opposed by the nearby Enclave Home Owner Association and by Reich Properties, a real-estate management company that owns space at the shopping center. They want the Osceola County Commission to deny Healy permission to move there even though the county’s Planning Board approved it, 6-2. The County Commission is scheduled to hear both sides Monday.

A funeral home doesn’t fit in a retail environment, opponents argue, and it would scare away potential tenants in a shopping center that needs them badly. The center has been virtually empty since its anchor, Publix, left a couple of years ago and other stores followed. One of every five houses sits empty In Poinciana, according to the census, and many businesses have closed as a result.

“There are three national retailers poised to spend over a million dollars to renovate the center,” John Reich of Reich Properties in Kissimmee wrote in a letter to the County Commission. The company owns about one-fourth of the center’s 125,000 square feet.

“However, they have made it clear that they will not move forward if the funeral home locates there,” Reich said in the letter. He wouldn’t say who the national retailers are.

As the availability of vacant commercial space has increased, funeral homes across the state have been moving into shopping centers, said Jan Scheff, executive director of the Association of Independent Funeral Homes of Florida.

“It’s not that uncommon now,” Scheff said. “They’re mostly independent owners, like our members, looking for a less expensive way to begin a funeral home. They’re usually located in areas where there is good traffic and ample parking, where they can be seen and gain name recognition.”

Lynn-Marie Arruda, co-owner of Dove Funeral Home on Curry Ford Road in Orlando, said she and her partner picked a strip shopping center precisely because of affordability. Their funeral home shares the center with seven other businesses, including an Irish bar and a beauty salon.

“Our expenses are lower this way,” said Arruda. She and her partner opened the funeral home in 1993. Later, they opened two more, in Winter Garden and Winter Park, also in strip shopping centers. Those have closed.

“We encountered some resistance in Winter Garden, but none at our other two places,” she said. “People have strange ideas about funeral homes. That’s just what it is.”

Anna Bungart, secretary of the Enclave association, said her group thinks the funeral home’s presence at the shopping center could further reduce property values, which have fallen severely in the past three years.

“What we need there are stores that provide goods and services that our community needs,” Bungart said. “They’re not going to come if there’s a funeral home here. And if all of that empty space doesn’t get filled, we’re going to see an increase in criminal activity, which will impact our property values.”

Ken Baker, who cast one of the two votes on the Planning Board against the project, said he was concerned about traffic around the shopping center at Pleasant Hill Road and John Young Parkway.

“A procession would release a lot of cars at the same time into that intersection,” Baker said. “That’s going to make a congested area even more congested.”

Healy said the arguments against the project are unfounded.

“A restaurant generates more traffic than a funeral home,” Healy said. “Where are the letters of intent from the national retailers that are supposed to come? Where is the evidence that supports that a funeral home has a negative impact on property values?”

Healy, who estimates he would spend $1.7 million renovating the building, argued that his investment would result in improving property values.

Scheff, of the funeral home association, said she has seen this kind of opposition before. She attributes it to people’s negative feelings about death.

“It’s not something that people regard as pleasant,” she said. “But death is part of life.”

Source

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