ST. PETERSBURG — Back in May 2010, artists, preservationists and business owners in St. Petersburg celebrated the opening of the Crislip Arcade and other shops on the north side of the 600 block of Central Avenue.
Those shops were closed in 2006 to make way for a $35 million condominium project. But the economy soured and the project never got off the ground.
Thomas Gaffney, a Tierra Verde investor, bought the stores for $2.3 million in 2008 with the intention of bulldozing them. Last year, a group led by City Council member Leslie Curran appeared to save the day when Gaffney agreed to offer low rent to local artists to keep the Crislip open.
Less than a year later, all but one of the eight original shops are in the process of leaving the historic arcade. Come Tuesday morning, only Rex-a-Million will remain.
Why the mass exodus?
It depends on whom you ask.
Most of the original tenants complained about poor management, citing the manager's practice of shutting off the air conditioning and locking the restrooms and the main gate to the arcade at 6 p.m. That isn't a common practice at other arcades in the city.
"I was the first one to jump ship," said Bill "Woo" Correira, owner of Gallery Woo. "I needed to run a business and didn't have access to my building. To get there and start at 9 (a.m.) would be great, but sometimes I'd be at the gate with a client and had to wait until after 10.
"They lock the bathrooms at 6 p.m., so no one uses them after that. The gates are closed at 6, too. In the art business, most shows are from 6 to 9 p.m."
The manager, Gary Burnside, did not return calls from the Times. But Gaffney, the owner, has a different take on things.
"We have to be careful with security," said Gaffney. "We can't have someone in there (the arcade) at night. It's not like a storefront. It's too dangerous."
So why weren't shop owners issued a key to the gate?
"We've given people the ability to lock up and they didn't do it," he said. "I had to have the manager go back at 2 a.m."
Correira and other artists dispute that, saying they were never given that option.
Gaffney said while there haven't been problems with crime in the 600 block, he has to consider his tenants' security.
"We're installing cameras around the whole building — from Central to Sixth Street and in the back," he said. "I want to make sure people have the best protection."
So how is he handling all the turnover?
"In the arcade we were concerned about what kind of stores would make it. All along we thought there might be some reshuffling," said Gaffney.
Getting the right mix of shops is crucial for the success of the 600 block, he said. "We want craftsmen in the arcade in hopes of getting visitors in there. We've readjusted. We want to make the arcade more active."
On a quick walk-through Friday afternoon, I saw two empty shops with two others in transition — one about to open, another in the process of closing. Most shops in the arcade were dark and closed for the day.
But one city leader still sees a lot of promise in the arcade.
"I think there's some positive things that could be done, like changing the hours," said Curran.
Gaffney appears to be open to some changes.
"If the stores wanted to stay open on Sunday, I don't have a problem. Honestly, I would be happy to keep it open. All they have to do is talk to the manager," he said.
"The arcade is like a big family; some people don't do well with families. It's not like an individual store."
Many of the original tenants' complaints fell on deaf ears, said Correira. Some artists went to Curran for help.
"I've talked to Tom (Gaffney) about that in the past," she said. "It doesn't surprise me to see change, because those things are inevitable. But the main thing is that it continues to be a place for the artists."
It doesn't appear the Crislip Arcade is having trouble filling the spaces. But unless they fix the management issues, it will become a revolving door as artists move in and out.
Sandra J. Gadsden is Assistant Metro Editor, Community News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (727) 893-8875.