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Orange Belt project gets green light for Warehouse Arts District

By Charlie Frago, Times Staff Writer
Published: September 14, 2017 Updated: September 20, 2017 at 10:03 PM

ST. PETERSBURG — A project that a developer labeled "an experiment in enlightened capitalism" got the green light from the City Council on Thursday. The Orange Belt Station project promises to bring a craft distillery and, perhaps, an alternative weekly newspaper to the Warehouse Arts District.

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The council also received updates on the Manhattan Casino negotiations and Commerce Park project along 22nd Street S, known as "The Deuces," which have divided the black community and become a major issue in the mayoral race between incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman and former Mayor Rick Baker.

Howard and Lucinda Johnston are spearheading the Orange Belt development, which would create a craft distillery run by their son, Chris Dixon. The site at 600 26th St. S would include space for artists' lofts and galleries and office space for what the Johnstons hope will be occupied by Creative Loafing, the alternative newspaper.

The Johnstons said they wanted to nurture struggling artists and businesses and would exercise "voluntary rent control."

The Orange Belt project was the first of three potential developments south of Central Avenue that have rankled some, but are supported by Kriseman as spark plugs for revitalizing the poor and predominantly black neighborhoods in Midtown, a key voting battleground.

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin said all three proposals will create at least 100 jobs.

"We celebrate this. We're proud of this. We're nowhere near done," Tomalin said. "The onus is on us as stewards of our resources to make sure these people deliver on their promises."

The projects were criticized by former mayoral candidate Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter for being the latest example of gentrification in Midtown at the expense of the black community.

"This means war," said Lassiter, who said she had gathered hundreds of signatures of residents opposed to the mayor's plan to put a Floribbean restaurant in the Manhattan Casino at 642 22nd St S.

The Orange Belt deal with the city grants a 25-year lease of the city-owned property, a former brownfields site, at $1,200 a month. The Johnstons and city real estate officials said they expect to eventually buy the property for the $185,000 appraised price.

Council member Ed Montanari said he thought that was a sweetheart arrangement.

"I'm all for commerce, but I also want to protect this city's property," he said. "This just looks to me like we're giving this property away for $1,200 a month."

The Johnstons have donated $2,500 to Kriseman's re-election campaign, although Montanari did not mention that fact. Montanari supports Baker in his bid to unseat Kriseman.

Council member Karl Nurse said building on the environmentally compromised site, once occupied by Atherton Oil Co., was a good use of the land.

"I'm trying to figure out what the gift is here. I think at some point you just say thank you," said Nurse, who has endorsed Kriseman.

Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, whose district covers the property, said it would be a good addition to the rapidly changing neighborhood.

"I like the idea that no one will be priced out of this," she said. She too endorsed Kriseman.

However, officials said the city wouldn't have any legal right to hold the Johnstons to their promise to practice voluntary rent control.

The council approved the Orange Belt lease agreement by a 6-1 vote with Montanari opposed. Council member Charlie Gerdes did not attend the meeting. He was at a family wedding.

Alan DeLisle, the city's top economic development official, also briefed the council on the progress of a 14-acre Commerce Park parcel on the west side of 22nd Street S across from the Manhattan Casino. The manufacturing and retail portions of the project are progressing faster than the workforce housing component, he said, but the constellation of business owners including a marine industry businesses and a high-end motorcycle dealership and service center have to complete their plans by May 2019, DeLisle said.

"The ball is really in their court," he said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.