ST. PETERSBURG — Not far from Woodlawn Cemetery, a 17-block stretch of the western end of Central Avenue is undergoing a transformation.
The people along the corridor from 58th Street to Park Street call it the West Central District. It includes several banks, the Sembler Co., the Wittner Centre, a host of small businesses, a couple of chain drugstores and a recently opened senior living facility, and it lies between two neighborhoods, Pasadena Bear Creek and Lake Pasadena.
The opening of freeFall Theatre in a former Christian Science church at 6099 Central is creating a buzz for the area.
No one is more excited about the area's potential than Sharon O'Gradney-Krkljus, owner of O Bistro at 6661 Central Ave.
"I feel very strongly that the theater is going to change the dynamics of the area in the long term," she said.
Within the next month or so the group will define its mission and begin the task of getting more businesses to join, said O'Gradney-Krkljus, the district's vice president.
"I do believe we're going to encourage more businesses to move into the area and become sort of like a St. Armands and SoHo to encourage more walking," she said.
For too long, she said, "all of the emphasis has been on downtown and Beach Drive — they've neglected this area for a long time."
"This (part of the) street should've taken precedence over all others. Some parts of the street don't speak well for the city," she said, adding that Central Avenue is the first street a lot of tourists see when heading downtown, because most are coming from hotels on the beaches.
She is doing what she can to help others in the area. A playbill announcing the premiere of The Frogs at the freeFall Theatre sits on a table at the entrance of her neighborhood restaurant and martini bar. Her staff also inserts fliers for the 2010/2011 season in customers' checks.
Last fall, the city of St. Petersburg held a series of meetings called A Conversation on Central. The intent was to discuss establishing unifying themes and create seven districts along the street, which is the only corridor that runs from Tampa Bay to the Gulf of Mexico.
"The objective is not for the city to go out and tell (business owners along) the corridor what they need, but rather to help them identify what they need. A big part of it has to be self-help," said Goliath Davis, senior administrator for community enrichment.
A few districts already exist: Grand Central (from 16th to 31st streets), the 600 Block district and the downtown core (from the 500 block to the bay).
Central Avenue is a long stretch that goes through the districts of five members of the City Council — Herb Polson, Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner, Wengay Newton and Karl Nurse.
At the city-sponsored meetings, business owners and residents discussed short-, medium- and long- term goals on issues like code compliance, marketing, zoning, safety and security, and transportation.
Some of the initiatives will take years to get off the ground, but the folks in the West Central District appear to be well on their way.
Thanks to the addition of the newly opened freeFall Theatre, the district hopes to repeat the success of the Grand Central Business District.
A Conversation on Central started with Curran, who was instrumental in facilitating discussion with artists and business owners on the 600 Block.
"Just to hear what they're doing in West Central (District) is really encouraging to me," she said. "For years I worked at 66th and Central, and that area is changing."
For many residents, that part of Central is essentially a speedway to get from the beaches or Tyrone area to downtown. The speed limit between 66th and 34th streets is 40 mph.
In the Grand Central District, the speed limit drops to 25 mph, and once you get past Ferg's Sports Bar, it drops to 20 mph. The speed limit changes again at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street to 15 mph. That continues to the waterfront — which practically encourages motorists to coast and rubberneck.
"A key consideration is how do you slow down traffic," said Curran, who added that changing the parking structure may also be in order. "What freeFall is going to do is help people realize that there's more to Central Avenue than just rushing to downtown."
Many of the blocks west of the 600 Block and east of the Grand Central District have countless empty storefronts lining Central Avenue.
"There are a lot of empty spaces," Curran conceded, "but some of that is driven by the economy."
"What I'd like to do is get more business people like Tom Gaffney and do what he did with the 600 Block — offer more reasonable rates and get some really cool shops in there," she said.
Sandra J. Gadsden is assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at email@example.com or at (727) 893-8874.