ST. PETERSBURG — Former mayoral candidate and Midtown resident Deveron Gibbons says he has long dreamed of seeing businesses and services other areas take for granted take root in his neighborhood.
Over the years, he’s seen Midtown get and fight to keep a post office, lose a national chain drug store and welcome and mourn the loss of two supermarkets.
Now Gibbons, 45, says he has secured $3.5 million in financing to build a gas station, convenience store and soul food restaurant on two acres across the street from Tangerine Plaza, site of the failed supermarkets. His project will also include a medical services building on the land his firm, TLM Investment Group 1, is leasing from the city.
"We think that there could be upwards of 20 jobs," said Gibbons, an executive with Amscot Financial and a St. Petersburg College trustee.
That the project would proceed was confirmed during a March 1 City Council meeting and promoted as a "good news item" by Council Chair Lisa Wheeler-Bowman.
"We finally are getting some development on that site," she said.
Noting that other ideas had been proposed for the property on the southwest corner of 18th Avenue S and 21st Street, Council member Charlie Gerdes thanked Gibbons’ company for its perseverance and the administration for making "the right decision to go forward."
He described it as "win for both sides."
But Council member Amy Foster questioned whether TLM could meet the May 1 deadline to break ground as required by its contract with the city. Foster said if the firm still hadn’t closed on a loan, "it’s going to probably be extremely difficult" to break ground on time.
Monday, Gibbons insisted that his firm will meet the deadline. "We will be breaking ground by May 1," he said. "There is no problem with the financing or the loan."
Gibbons’ business partner is Doug Cobarras, 47, a former St. Petersburg High School football player who went to the U.S. Military Academy before transferring to the Citadel.
"We’re closer than brothers," Gibbons said. "His parents are my godparents."
The two have been pursuing the site since 2014, when the city first issued a Request for Proposals. Gibbons blamed the years-long delay on economic reservations about the area that saw the closure of the Walmart Neighborhood Market at Tangerine Plaza — which itself went into foreclosure — and the departure of a Walgreens less than five minutes away.
"Folks are not going to spend their money when they see things are closing," Gibbons said of potential investors.
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Last June, his company asked the city for an extension on the development agreement. Council members set a Jan. 31 deadline to secure financing. The site is just east of the GTE Federal Credit Union, which opened in 2009 and was a triumph for a neighborhood that had no financial institution.
Alan DeLisle, the city’s development administrator, said Gibbons’ project is another important step for the area.
"Which is why the council approved the project many years ago. It does bring a new element to 22nd Street S," he said, referring to the historic pre-desegregation African-American entertainment and business district known as the Deuces.
DeLisle mentioned other Midtown projects, including the historic Manhattan Casino, where a new restaurant — the Callaloo — will replace the abruptly closed Sylvia’s soul food establishment.
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Nearby, Elihu and Carolyn Brayboy, owners of Chief’s Creole Café, are planning apartments and retail on the site of the historic Merriwether Building, which collapsed during Hurricane Irma and was demolished. The Brayboys are also competing with Deuces Live, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring 22nd Avenue S, to develop two adjacent city-owned lots.
DeLisle also pointed to Commerce Park — formerly the Dome Industrial Park — the proposed site for Eurocycles of Tampa Bay, an Odessa high-end motorcycle dealership and service center, and a marina equipment systems consortium led by EMP of St. Petersburg.
Along with the promised development, the city is completing a master plan for 22nd Street S that includes streetscape and parks and other improvements, DeLisle said.
TLM will lease what will be a Mobil gas station and convenience store to the Island Investments company.
"They are minorities and the reason we have them is that they are the best operators. Our partner in this deal is Risser Oil. They have volunteered to help us get this right," Gibbons said, adding that the gas station operators have committed to hiring "minority folks from the neighborhood."
Wheeler-Bowman expressed concern about loitering, a trend at other neighborhood gas stations. "I want to make sure that this development is a quality business," she said.
Gibbons said he wants the site, near Perkins Elementary School, to be welcoming to people from across the city.
"We will make sure that safety and the appearance ... will allow them to come back," he said.
The project will also include a 5,000-square-foot soul food restaurant operated by Heavy’s Family Catering and some type of medical services.
Gibbons, who lives in a luxury home he built in the struggling neighborhood where he grew up, described his business investment as "a labor of love."
"If the company breaks even and never makes a dime, I am happy in doing the right thing for this community and I want to make sure that the people of Midtown have the same essential services that every community in the city has and that it deserves," he said. "I hope to finish developing this and also to move across the street, because we have done a lot of work toward developing the entire corner."
That might be difficult. In January the Tampa Bay Times reported that Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration discussed rejuvenating Tangerine Plaza with Altis Cardinal, a Miami firm that contributed heavily to the mayor’s re-election campaign and is involved in a multi-million redevelopment at the edge of Historic Kenwood.
"Altis is one of several developers and other organizations that have expressed interest," DeLisle said this week.
Gibbons supported Kriseman’s opponent, former Mayor Rick Baker, and was a mayoral candidate in 2009.
The city spent $2 million to open Tangerine Plaza in 2005 and in 2017 took back control from operator Larry Newsome after the shopping center lost its second grocery store in three years.
"It’s a priority to move that forward this year," DeLisle said of the moribund shopping center. Wheeler-Bowman is hopeful for Gibbons’ project across the street.
"If it happens, I see it as hopefully bringing more jobs to the area. When a development like that comes in, maybe it will be a ripple effect and other developers will keep coming in and see it’s not a bad idea to invest in South St. Petersburg," she said.
"I want it to work....I do want it to work."
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.