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BayWalk buzzes with activity for Shopapalooza, a local business expo

Sixty-five local, independent businesses participated in the outdoor expo at BayWalk, which was organized by Localshops1. It was the first time in perhaps years that the struggling complex, has seen such activity.

KAMEEL STANLEY | Times

Sixty-five local, independent businesses participated in the outdoor expo at BayWalk, which was organized by Localshops1. It was the first time in perhaps years that the struggling complex, has seen such activity.

ST. PETERSBURG — Sandy Moss wasn't sure if she'd ever come back to BayWalk.

Her last visit was three years ago, for breakfast at one of the many now-closed restaurants.

But on Saturday, with her grandchildren in tow, Moss found herself shopping and enjoying what the complex had to offer.

"I really was surprised," said Moss, 67 of St. Pete Beach. "We haven't been here in years."

She wasn't the only one.

BayWalk teemed with activity as 65 vendors, hundreds of shoppers and curious passers-by packed the complex for an inaugural outdoor expo showcasing local, independently owned businesses.

Localshops1's Shopapalooza event did what BayWalk officials have been unable to do for the past few years — draw crowds to the struggling complex, which is about 80 percent vacant.

"It's a shame," said 57-year-old city resident Penka Pesev, who stumbled upon Saturday's four-hour event on her way to a downtown craft fair. "It used to be fun, but then … everything stopped.

Localshops1 is owned by entrepreneur Ester Venouziou, who also works as a designer for the St. Petersburg Times.

Venouziou said city officials suggested she approach BayWalk when they learned of the event a couple of months ago. BayWalk was very receptive, Venouziou said, and did not charge a fee to use the space, although she had to purchase insurance.

"This is a transient event. It happens once a year," said Paul Stellrecht, a city economic development coordinator who stopped by Shopapalooza. "It's not going to fill BayWalk. But BayWalk is here … we might as well use it."

Shoppers got plenty of use out of the space Saturday, as they browsed booths and sampled products from local businesses.

Many, like Karen Jones, gushed about the event while expressing frustration that BayWalk hasn't recovered.

Jones, 53 of St. Petersburg noted that other parts of downtown — like Beach Drive, Central Avenue and the Saturday Morning Market — are thriving.

She said BayWalk officials need to swallow their pride and do more to bring tenants in or start doing more events like Saturday's to bring people in.

"Now that they're reviving downtown, they need to bring more businesses down here," Jones said. "It's just sad."

BayWalk officials could not be reached for comment.

Residents aren't the only ones frustrated by the lack of progress.

"My patience is waning," said Mayor Bill Foster, who added that he's had conversations with Bar Management Group, which manages a similar property in Charlotte, N.C. He visited the property in August to woo company representatives to invest in BayWalk.

So far, however, no dice.

"(Bar Management) sees it as more risky than I do," Foster said. "It's a little frustrating because I can't do anything to mitigate their feeling of risk. They see it as someone is going to have to invest a lot of money in an area that over the last 10 years has failed as a location. It's just a hard sell to convince people that this time we're going to do it right."

He said CW Capital, which owns BayWalk, has done everything it could.

"They have showed a significant willingness to bring in a partner. But they're not going to give the property away, either, " Foster said.

He said the deal could still happen, but the odds are growing long.

"If somebody doesn't sign soon, then it's off to find another prospect."

Shoppers on Saturday said they were just glad to have a reason to be back at the complex.

"I think the community likes BayWalk being here," said Stellrecht's wife, Helen. "We're hopeful it can make a comeback. … This is a great start."

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8643.

BayWalk buzzes with activity for Shopapalooza, a local business expo 11/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 20, 2010 9:12pm]
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