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Dunedin aims to create St. Petersburg-inspired arts district

DUNEDIN

If city leaders get their way, Dunedin — home of Honeymoon Island, craft beer, baseball and many things Scottish — could soon add another identity: arts capital of Florida.

After years of talk, the city has moved on road improvements, and approved the creation of grants, permit fee reductions and other incentives aimed at turning a 45-acre swath just north of downtown into a place where artists would buy deteriorating properties, renovating them into homes that double as work studios. The artists would occasionally be allowed to post sidewalk signs and sell their wares during special events, such as the 2nd Friday Art Walk, or other designated times.

The mixed residential and industrial area — bordered by Skinner Boulevard to the north, Louden Avenue to the east, Main and Monroe streets to the south, and the Pinellas Trail and Huntley Avenue to the west — would feed off trail traffic and effectively extend the already bustling downtown.

The goal, officials say, is to create a niche that draws tourists and potential residents who are already enamored with offerings at the Dunedin Fine Art Center, nearby galleries and the popular arts community in South Pinellas.

"We're just trying to attract additional artists to the already strong artist population that we have," said Dunedin planning and development director Greg Rice.

"We've seen this happen in St. Petersburg, where some very difficult streets taken over by artists really changed the flavor of the whole neighborhood," he said. "We were hoping for some of the same kind of revitalization."

Experts call it a smart move.

Americans for the Arts, using data from business analyst firm Dun & Bradstreet, recently counted 2,931 arts-related businesses in Pinellas — 4.3 percent of all companies — employing 14,192 people, or 2.8 percent of the county's workforce.

From galleries to museums to performing arts venues and more, St. Petersburg alone features more than 700 arts-based businesses spread across five art districts, said Elizabeth Brincklow, manager of the city's office of cultural affairs.

John Collins, executive director of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, said that what began about four years ago as a request by local artists to paint shuttered windows in the 600 block of Central Avenue has "sparked a renaissance" and contributed to a 40 percent increase in artists, writers and performers moving to Tampa Bay between 2002 and 2011.

"Absolutely, the city of St. Petersburg is now known as an arts destination. It is among the cultural capitals of Florida, " Brincklow said. "It's money well invested."

Community leaders say Dunedin's proposed concept has worked before in downtown Bradenton, where the city in 1999 approached artists about redeveloping a rundown 42-acre, 240-home residential area into the Village of the Arts. The initial smattering of about a dozen studios has grown to include an independent bookstore, three cafes, a yoga studio and about 30 studio galleries — half double as artists' homes.

The community has been proactive in pursuing live/work-friendly zoning, forming a neighborhood watch, and assisting police and neighbors in dismantling rampant prostitution, said Graciela Giles-Rose, a watercolorist and Ringling College of Art teacher who helped lead the charge.

"It wasn't overnight. Little by little, it started to improve," said Giles-Rose, 64. "It takes many hands; it takes a community to make a change within a community."

Dunedin envisions ushering in a similar young, vibrant, energetic diversity that would entice dancers and architects to graphic designers and visual artists, officials said. Road repavement, landscaping and other work is already under way along the north Douglas Avenue corridor, an effort to attract more businesses to join a brewery, dance studio, and metal fabrication and artist studio already there. As for home upgrades, the city especially wants to target the area surrounding Howard Avenue and Highland Court, said Rice, the planning director.

The eventual ambience? "We're trying to make it not very intense, but to make it more of a mixed residential and artists business community," he said.

City Commissioner-elect Deborah Kynes, who was on the panel when Dunedin started germinating the idea in the early 2000s, said she's eager for the "huge economic boon." But she's worried about gentrification.

"I just want to be careful that we don't price out the very artists we want to come in a district that's supposed to allow them to flourish," she said.

Already, Kynes said, several musicians, a sculptor and an artist who upcycles found materials have called her to inquire about the district.

Michael Cotherman is among those already chomping at the bit.

The 47-year-old Tarpon Springs man and his wife, Tara Cupp, are feverishly working to open Cotherman Distilling Co. in coming weeks in a 4,000-square-foot warehouse that formerly housed Bayshore Plumbing at 933 Huntley Ave.

The craftsman said he's not worried by a state law that limits his alcohol sales to two bottles per person per year.

"It's got that niche where people like to come and hang out. And even better, we're on the water," Cotherman said.

Susan Rollins Gehring, a Dunedin resident and immediate past president of the Professional Association of Visual Arts, and stained glass artist Dee Rodriques both called it a "wonderful" idea.

Since the 1970s, Gehring said, the Dunedin Fine Art Center has drawn enthusiasts and new residents to the city. She said a dedicated arts district would add to the rush.

"I do think artists would be interested in this," she said. "We like to visit with one another and share ideas, and it gives a lot of energy to an area when you can have someone close by to do that."

Rodriques, who began renting studio and classroom space at the Institute for Creative Arts nearly four years ago, said the Douglas Avenue facility — just blocks away from downtown — yearns for more passers-by.

"A lot of people don't think we're open for the public. Right now, my art more or less looks at itself," said Rodriques, 54, of Clearwater. "So it would be great if we could get more foot traffic. It would definitely be awesome and make that place come more alive."

Contact Keyonna Summers at ksummers@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153. Follow @KeyonnaSummers.

Dunedin aims to create St. Petersburg-inspired arts district 07/17/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 17, 2014 4:19pm]
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