ST. PETERSBURG — Harry Truman was president in 1947 when the first residents moved into the Venetian Motor Home Court on Fourth Street N. It was among the dozens of trailer parks and motels along Fourth Street that for decades provided an affordable escape from the northern cold.
Today, most of the motels are gone, replaced by restaurants, banks and mattress stores. And soon, the Venetian will be gone, too.
Developer Grady Pridgen has bought the park for $10 million and plans a new "walkable" residential community with shops and recreation areas around a natural lake. Meanwhile, the Venetian’s current residents — all of them over 55 — have until Aug. 31 to find another place to live in Tampa Bay’s increasingly hard-to-afford housing market.
On Tuesday, dozens gathered in the Venetian’s club house, decorated with shiny red hearts for Valentine’s Day, to hear their options, which basically boiled down to this: Sign over the titles to their trailers for a state-mandated compensation amount, $1,375 for a single-wide, $2,750 for a double-wide.
"I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do," said Sam Pantalao, who has lived in the Venetian for 16 of his 86 years.
Nancy Hurt, who bought her trailer in 2002, doesn’t want to leave St. Petersburg and her mother, who is in a nursing home. But she knows $1,375 wouldn’t go very far in finding an apartment.
"Maybe I’ll move in with a girl friend,’’ said Hurt, 62.
In recent years, as the Venetian changed hands twice and the new owners jacked up the lot rents, some owners walked way from their trailers and never came back. Among the 80 or so owners still in the park are seasonal snowbirds.
"They can go back to Canada or Michigan," said Alex Houget, 58, who makes the Venetian his permanent home. From his Social Security disability income, he scraped together $6,500 for a trailer that is too old now to move somewhere else.
"But I get it," he says, "this is progress."
Pridgen, the park’s new owner, was among Tampa Bay’s best known developers during the last boom. He developed the Gateway Business Center in Pinellas Park, bringing in big-name tenants like Jabil and Lockheed-Martin, and made a multi-million dollar profit flipping land that is now the site of Tampa’s Westshore Marina District.
But after the recession hit and banks began foreclosing on his loans, Pridgen all but disappeared from the scene for several years to regroup and spend more time with his family as his wife underwent treatment for breast cancer.
In an email, Pridgen said he is considering apartments, townhomes, senior housing and "neighborhood commercial" for the nearly 20- acre Venetian site bordering 54th Avenue N. He noted that it is about the same size as Ibis Walk, an upscale apartment community he developed in the Gateway area, but is more centrally located and within a five-mile radius of over 100,000 jobs.
"That job concentration is only matched in Florida in (Tampa’s) Westshore," he wrote.
City officials said Pridgen has not yet submitted plans for the project and would need to have the site rezoned to allow for the uses he is considering.
The sale of the Venetian is part of two landscape-altering trends — the explosive growth on Fourth Street N and the gradual disappearance of the mobile home parks that once beckoned thousands to Florida.
"Commercial land along Fourth Street rivals the highest values in the county," said Pinellas County Property Appraiser Mike Twitty "It’s a good, solid commercial corridor with pretty much of everything on it. Anything along on Fourth Street is fair game for redevelopment."
Also known as U.S. Highway 92, Fourth Street is a straight pipeline through St. Petersburg to one of Florida’s most vibrant downtowns. The residential growth there is quickly spreading up Fourth; a former mobile home park near the Venetian is now the site of dozens of new townhomes starting in the $300,000s.
Meanwhile, almost no manufactured housing communities are being created in Florida as existing mobile home parks continue to close. At least three were vacated in the Tampa Bay area last year: one each in Tampa, Largo and Clearwater. Still, about 10 percent of all residents of Pinellas and Hillsborough live in mobile homes .
At Tuesday’s meeting, two staffers of the Florida Mobile Home Relocation Corp. stood under the bingo board in the Venetian’s clubhouse as residents peppered them with questions. Based in Clearwater, the state-run corporation helps owners whose parks are closing because of a change in land use.
The staffers explained that owners have two options: "abandonment," signing over the title for up to $2,750; or "relocation," applying for up to $6,000 toward the cost of moving a mobile home. Actual moving costs, though, can far exceed that. And the home must be brought up to current building standards, which also can be prohibitively expensive.
Most, if not all, of the Venetian owners seemed resigned to abandoning their trailers and applying the compensation toward the final few months of lot rental.
Among the park’s permanent residents are Dorothy Clark and Doris Jones, identical twins now 91. On Tuesday, hard to tell apart with their snow-white hair and hot pink blouses, they shared coffee and donuts with other residents after the meeting.
Dorothy and her late husband bought the Venetian in 1973. Two years ago, she sold it for $6 million to a Tampa company that sold it in October to Pridgen. But she didn’t want to leave the triple-wide home that she now shares with her twin.
"I was so familiar with everyone in the park and the location, and I decided I’d just stay as long as it remained a park," she says. "While I had it, we had dances and games and all kinds of things."
Then a new owner came in and eviction notices went out.
"It was," Clark said, "pretty quiet this winter."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642 or follow @susanskate