West St. Pete business district gaining steam
ST. PETERSBURG - A gateway from the beach onto what’s been called the city’s central business artery isn’t much to look at. There is a small waterfront park, then a broad four-lane strip of asphalt, a few trees, convenience stores, strip centers, a scattering of boutique stores and restaurants. There’s been a lot of talk about transforming these westernmost blocks of Central Avenue into a collection of pedestrian-friendly shops – another main street to bookend the successful downtown business district. After community groups formed and dissolved and years of discussions over what to do with funds set aside for improvements, the stretch of Central Avenue between 58th Street and Park Street hasn’t fundamentally changed.An emerging West Central Avenue business association hopes to help establish more of an identity for this part of town. Two million dollars might also help, as city leaders have promised funds set aside for landscaping, streetlights and medians. Enduring change as seen in districts closer to downtown, such as Grand Central, however, will go far beyond the next budget cycle, requiring more patience and more community buy-in than past revitalization efforts here, community leaders say. “In order for this to work, it can’t just be the few because either just the few make decisions that don’t necessarily represent the majority or they just get burned out,” said Bianca Natal, owner of The Gypsy Queen, a chic consignment shop at 7255 Central Ave. Following a 24-year career as an officer in the U.S. Army, Natal opened a shop in December, selling high-end furniture, antiques and artwork. The storefront had been empty for several years before that, and Natal immediately sought to fill the stark streets and sidewalks outside her shop with large pots of bright pink bougainvillea. She started meeting her neighbors and caught pieces of the district’s rocky history. There was $2 million set aside for improvements along Central Avenue through the county’s Penny for Pinellas program that would include the West Central District. New businesses and arts venues moved in, most notably Freefall theatre at 6099 Central Ave. A group called the West Central District Corp. gained a little momentum a few years ago, organizing the community to help guide plans to revive the area as part of the city’s broader Central Avenue Redevelopment Plan. The group remained small and there were disagreements. The promised funds never materialized. Eventually, the group fizzled. When Natal heard a citywide group called the Central Avenue Council was again looking for leaders to direct the revitalization of the west side, she saw an opportunity to put her background as an Army logistics officer – that is, a delegator – to work here. She’s reaching out to 91 businesses in western St. Petersburg and hopes to host a meeting in the near future, possibly at a café she’s opening in a space adjacent to her consignment store. “Basically the message I’ve been trying to get out is if you don’t get involved, I mean, you really have little to no voice,” she said. Leaders of the Central Avenue Council are looking to foster strong community-led groups in each of the seven districts along the 9-mile corridor linking downtown with the beaches. In the long run, the city plans to invest $38 million to improve the entire stretch, including rapid transit buses along First Avenue North and First Avenue South. For now, the man heading the council, Bob Jeffrey, is encouraging emerging community groups starting up along Central to think small and think long. It took more than a decade of organizing, garnering community buy-in, and undergoing a rigorous process to qualify for the national Main Street program to make the Grand Central District into a success. Those who show up at early meetings with enthusiasm expecting rapid changes are bound to be disappointed, he said. “The brightest bulbs burn out the fastest,” said Jeffrey, a former city development official. “You realize this isn’t something that’s going to happen in five, 10 years. it’s really a 20-year process.” Longtime residents on the west side partly blame their burnout on unfulfilled promises by the city and county to back up their plans with financial support. Monica Abbott, secretary for the defunct West Central District Corp., remembers years of meetings talking about rapid transit, main street organizations, widening sidewalks and narrowing the street from four lanes to two. Get organized, the city told them, and the funds will be there, she said. “After a while, it’s just empty words,” Abbott said. “At some point, you’ve got to back them up.” Abbott and other residents are also puzzled about why the Central Avenue Trolley, meant to showcase the city’s business corridor from The Pier out to the beach, takes a turn to the south at South Pasadena Avenue, effectively cutting off the western end of Central Avenue. As for the first grievance, the district’s City Council member, Charlie Gerdes, has vowed to get the promised funds onto the county’s 2014 budget. “That infusion will establish some credibility and give people the confidence to make their own improvements to their buildings,” Gerdes said. After this initial bump, though, Jeffrey warns residents in the West Central District not to get caught up too quickly in tackling the area’s big issues, such as public transit. One of the first projects that helped build support in Kenwood and the Grand Central District was gathering 300 volunteers to design and install the distinctive Historic Kenwood signs on every street corner in the neighborhood. For their next mission, designing and erecting a pavilion in a neighborhood park, volunteers eventually dwindled to a handful of worn-out people. “If we had started with that project and not an easy project like one little sign … we would have been dead in the water,” Jeffrey said. “You’d like to install the Golden Gate Bridge over to Treasure Island, but that’s probably not the one to start with.”
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