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Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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St. Pete artists seek sanctuary from ever-rising rents

— It doesn’t take long for abandoned, dilapidated warehouses to become so cool that up-and-coming artists can’t afford to rent them anymore.

Such is the problem facing painters, potters, glass-blowers and others who work in the industrial environs of 22nd Street South.

For many years, this area south of Central Avenue was virtually empty, with the exception of an old brick train station turned pottery studio and gallery at Fifth Avenue South and the Pinellas Trail.

Now it’s home to a renowned glass artist, a microbrewery, a much-anticipated soul food eatery and a monthly vintage market, among the neighborhood’s other attractions.

It has a name, the Warehouse Arts District, and property values are going up, with vacant city-owned plots appreciating at 9 percent in the past year, and that means it’s not the haunt for starving artists it once was.

That’s why members of the district are coming together to buy a 50,000-square-foot complex of old warehouse space along the Pinellas Trail where they hope to preserve lower rents for the kind of creative souls who have helped spark the current urban revitalization.

Their nonprofit group has a contract to buy the Ace Recycling property, a collection of six aging warehouses at 515 22nd St. S. where sculptor Mark Aeling keeps a studio.

They envision making renovated, air-conditioned art studios in half the space, alongside other creative ventures such as a small business incubator, recording studio, restaurant and possibly a brew pub.

“We’re going to try to really create an artist community here that generates a buzz, where people can work together, they can consult with their peers, they can share ideas, they can share resources,” Aeling said.

The group is trying to raise $350,000 by Nov. 1 to move forward with the purchase and get a jump-start on renovations for the Warehouse Arts Enclave.

They will thoroughly inspect the 60-year-old property and crunch numbers during the next six months.

If all goes well, the group could have studios up and running by next fall, Aeling said.

Redevelopment in this industrial corridor just west of downtown has sped up rapidly in the past year after decades of decline.

While there’s still plenty of empty space, including a 14-acre lot across from Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Food restaurant at 642 22nd St. S., the city staff has been impressed by the amount of private investment in recent months.

“We’ve got a lot of flowers blooming along the corridor there,” said Rick Smith of the city’s planning and economic development department.

Just south of the arts district, St. Petersburg College’s new Midtown campus is expected to bring a flurry of new restaurants and retail after opening next spring.

Longtime St. Petersburg artists like Lance Rodgers have seen this happen in cities across the country.

Lofts in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood once were prized by artists for low overhead, but eventually the district transformed into upscale boutiques and restaurants.

The Warehouse Arts District and the Midtown neighborhood to the south, known as Deuces Live, are probably still a long way off from that level of revitalization, but rent is becoming too high for some artists.

Rodgers recently left the Five Deuces Galleria on 22nd Street just a few months after it opened, finding the costs too high, and now keeps his studio in a garage at his home in the Old Southeast neighborhood.

“What we do for a living, we need a lot of space and it’s got to be cheap and where we can make a mess,” said Rodgers.

“So we tend to go into depressed areas like a warehouse arts district and turn it around, but it won’t be long before we can’t afford to be there.”

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