ST. PETERSBURG — The demise of the distinctive sign has been rumored many times.
This time, it’s no rumor. It looks very likely that by the end of spring the corner of 16th Street and Central Avenue will no longer be graced by World Liquors and its iconic overhead sign for the first time since 1961.
Where the establishment’s famous sign ends up is anybody’s guess. At this point, it appears headed to an auction to be awarded to the highest bidder.
Milhaus Development of Indianapolis closed Wednesday on a deal to buy the entire block between Central and First Avenues N and S and 16th and 17th Streets. They plan to build a $50 million six-story project with 251 multi-family units and over 12,000 square-feet of retail space.
Groundbreaking could take place in March or April, said Milhaus vice president of development Michael Mincberg. It could be finished by mid-2020.
It looks like the large sign with the big globe won’t be marking the boundary between the Edge District and Grand Central District much longer.
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Why can’t the sign stay in its old neighborhood?
World Liquors owner Paul Misiewicz said Milhaus had no interest in incorporating the sign into its project because its size would have cut into the development’s footprint.
"They had no interest," Misiewicz said. "These guys are strictly business. They’ve got the formula."
Discussions never got that far, said Mincberg. He said Misiewicz made it clear from the start of their talks that he wanted to retain ownership of the sign.
"It never got past the one-yard line," Mincberg said.
Misiewicz alone controls the fate of the sign. He’s leaning toward auctioning it off.
He plans to donate the proceeds from any auction to the Boley Centers, a nonprofit that serves the mentally ill and homeless. He serves on the board of directors.
Misiewicz said he will announce auction plans as soon as he receives payment from Milhaus. He plans to close World Liquors by March 1.
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Misiewicz’s uncle first had the sign built from scratch for $2,600. He said the globe came from a dismantled sign at the World Furniture store, on the 100 block of Central, when it was going out of business.
The globe used to rotate, but quit sometime in the late 1970s. It used to light up, Misiewicz said, but sometime later the interior went dark.
City Council member Darden Rice spoke up in favor of preserving the sign when the council members met as Community Redevelopment Agency on Jan. 4. That’s when they signed off on the Milhaus project.
She laments that a signature part of the city’s landscape seems destined to be preserved only in pictures and memories.
The sign is a casualty of a booming city, she said, with a seemingly insatiable demand for new development.
"Every new step we improve, we lose a little tip of what we were," Rice said. "That sign is authentic local color of what we honor and celebrate in the St. Pete way."
Over the years, as redevelopment plans have come and gone, residents have spoken out about the importance of preserving the sign, one of dozens of historically significant signs on a city registry.
Other notable signs on the list include: El Cap restaurant, the old-fashioned burger joint on 3500 Fourth St. N, and Sunken Gardens, the botanical park at 1825 Fourth St. N.
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So far no one has stepped forward to make a third-party request to protect the sign under the city’s historic preservation guidelines, said Derek Kilborn, the city’s manager for Urban Planning and Historic Preservation.
St. Petersburg Preservation vice president Peter Belmont said his organization, which has led the charge to preserve several historical structures around the city, talked about saving the sign years ago but hasn’t discussed it recently.
"I think it’s unfortunate," Belmont said of the sign’s impending demise.
Misiewicz said he would consider a city offer to preserve the sign. But its advanced age means it will probably have to be displayed inside. Decades in the salty air, he said, have inflicted significant damage.
Even to this day, he said peoples still take pictures of the sign all the time. The 64-year-old has worked at World Liquors since 1973, which means he has spent most of his life there. He learned recently that the inconic sign has been portrayed on locally-made T-shirts, but he hasn’t seen one yet.
He’s well aware of the sign’s place in the Sunshine City’s cultural imagination, but he feels equanimous about its fate.
"I think it’ll be missed," Misiewicz said. "But like all things: Once they’re gone, they’re not missed so much."