The block party last Saturday celebrating the revival of the 600 block of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg attracted a diverse mix of residents. Crowds strolled in and out of the new spaces — particularly the beautifully renovated 1926 Crislip Arcade — enjoying the art galleries and boutiques that have replaced a lineup of shuttered storefronts and derelict buildings. This is what happens when a property owner buys into a vision that serves private enterprise and the public good: A revival that may seem impossible during a recession suddenly blooms. Kudos to the owner, Thomas Gaffney, and to St. Petersburg City Council member Leslie Curran for planting the seeds.
Curran, a major booster of the arts in St. Petersburg, was the engine behind the 600 block changes. She worked with volunteers to get the buildings cleaned out and helped secure reduced-rent leases for artists and creative groups with the means to run a business and renovate their rentals. But the transformation would not have happened had Gaffney not committed to the project and invested in it.
Gaffney bought the vacated property in 2008, intending to sit on it until the economy turned around. With Curran's urging, Gaffney agreed to open the shops to artists. The plan progressed to creating a kind of art village with galleries and other creative businesses. Gaffney's can-do enthusiasm was key, Curran says.
And what a payoff. This is the kind of project that builds on itself, revitalizing a depressed portion of downtown as it draws young professionals to St. Petersburg to work and live. Now Curran wants to do the same thing for other downtown streets. She says she just needs "more owners like Tom Gaffney who can see what can be done." No one would argue with that.