ST. PETERSBURG — How does sipping a craft locally sourced rum in the city's artistic epicenter sound? A proposed "town square" built to green specs and designed to bring together artists, hipsters and journalists in a cluster is being discussed for the Warehouse Arts District.
The city is negotiating to sell vacant, city-owned industrial land at 600 26th St. S to a development group that wants to buy it for $150,000 and build a "town square" within toasting distance of the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail.
Orange Belt Station LLC, a venture named for the unused railway line nearby, hopes to build a 14,342-square-foot development to house a startup called Snake Doctor Spirits and Elixirs, a craft rum distillery.
Creative Loafing, the bay area's alternative weekly newspaper, could also relocate to the space from its Ybor City office in Tampa. So would Chart 411, an environmental and educational nonprofit now located in the 1000 block of Ninth Avenue N in Historic Uptown.
There have been discussions with Orange Belt to relocate Creative Loafing's employees to St. Petersburg, said publisher James Howard, but a final decision to relocate is a long way off. Orange Belt's proposal said Creative Loafing has expressed "serious interest" in moving its 18 employees to the Sunshine City, but Howard said the talks are still preliminary and need to involve the publication's corporate owners in Nashville, Tenn.
"It's an exciting possibility," Howard said. "Obviously, it's a great area of town."
One of the project's developers, Howard Johnston, said the proposal has legs. He, wife Lucinda Johnston and John Powell, a clinical neuropsychologist at Bay Pines VA Medical Center, are partners in the project.
"I think we're close. I'm very optimistic," Howard Johnston said. "We hope this becomes a focal point for the district."
The partners are set to meet with the city's real estate department next week. Mayor Rick Kriseman's spokesman, Ben Kirby, confirmed that the city is negotiating with Orange Belt after selecting the group. The city sent out a request for proposals for the parcel earlier this year.
The Johnstons will team up with their son, Chris Dixon, who will be the master distiller, to open Snake Doctor. They plan to make rum with local ingredients, and the space works because the distillery wouldn't need a lot of storage.
The project's total development cost is estimated to be $1.2 million, according to Orange Belt's proposal. If all goes according to plan, it would be finished between the end of 2018 and early 2019, Johnston said. The plan includes solar panels on the roof and building to LEED standards, he said, and there will be landscaped parking across the street.
"We're really trying to make a green project," he said, "trying to make a reasonable profit while helping to build a green, sustainable community."
The Johnstons have contributed $1,250 to Kriseman's re-election campaign this year, $1,000 of it in January, the same month that the city asked for proposals.
Howard Johnston said that money played no role in the city's selection, nor was it intended to do so. He said they've been talking to city real estate officials for more than a year.
"I don't even think the mayor knew about it," he said.
The mayor's spokesman said the contribution from the Johnstons had "zero bearing at all" on the process. Although the city received some inquiries about the parcel after it issued its request for proposals, city records show that only Orange Belt submitted a bid.
"The mayor has a lot of supporters in the community," Kirby said.
The arrival of Creative Loafing and Snake Doctor would be a boon to the fledgling Warehouse Arts District, a recently reinvigorated area south of Kenwood and home to an increasing number of artist studios and craft breweries.
"They would be wonderful additions to the Warehouse Arts District," said Mark Aeling, president of the Warehouse Arts District Association's board of directors.
"The more creatives in the neighborhood, the better. We would love to have them here."