EAST TAMPA — Hiding in plain sight at the intersection of 50th Street and Hillsborough Avenue is a renaissance that's in full swing at a former industrial site known now as the 5508 Co-Working and Collaboration Exchange.
On the outside, the structures dotting the property situated on the west side of 50th Street still vaguely resemble the storage facility units they once were.
But what used to be spaces filled with antique wares or book collections are now stylishly decorated storefronts like Lu-Jeanik House of Fashion, where owner Shanikki Peterson makes and sells clothing of her own design.
Or office's like attorney Selma Benkabbou's law practice which is outfitted with cushy red couches and a dark wood coffee table.
There's even a school on the site — the Walter Academy for Entrepreneurship — where students in grades 5 through 12 learn not only how to write business plans, but launch enterprises of their own.
It's what can happen when a locale that once housed used or unwanted items is reimagined into a destination location for business and entertainment, said director Jeannette Bradley.
The property has undergone a mass transformation in the last three years and now is a popular scene for parties, events, weddings and other gatherings, including next week's Jazz Under the Stars featuring Cleo Heart and the Marlon Boone Trio. The concert is part of a series of events related to the Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival.
"Our goal is to change this sector of Hillsborough (Avenue)," she said. "People will see this as an attraction and want to be here."
The co-work and incubator space is part of Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan's mission to support economic development and create a culture of entrepreneurship in low-income areas of East Tampa. The nonprofit, founded by James Hammond in 1987, focuses on fulfilling its strategic initiatives in healthcare, housing, and business development.
Accomplishing the last one means growing novice enterprises into bona fide businesses by arming the owners with the mentoring and resources necessary to help them succeed once they have graduated from the incubator program, said Steve Marshall, development and partnerships manager.
Before extended an invitation into the incubator program, business owners must complete a seven-page application and submit references.
After a thorough vetting process, the businesses are assigned office space and owners follow a process that's designed to help their businesses stand on their own after three years, he said.
Membership for incubator space onsite starts at $180 a month. Currently, 35 businesses participate in the incubator program, Marshall said.
At one time, the nonprofit's board of directors was advised to leave the area. Instead, it made the "conscious" decision to invest $2 million in 5508 and remain "in the heart of the community," Bradley said.
Now, the future looks very bright with a waiting list for the incubator program and renovations on a 10,000 square foot warehouse to create another co-working space soon to start.
It's a reality that Hammond said he finds "incredible."
"I'm just blown away," he said.
But there is more work to be done, namely getting the word out about all that 5508 has to offer the community at large.
That means hosting more events so that business owners get more exposure and visitors get a closer look at one of East Tampa's jewels, Bradley said.
"It's time for us to create experiences here," she said. "We're looking at ways we can have those discussions to create those experiences."
5508 Co-working and Collaboration Exchange is a program that offers professional workspace and business assistance services to entrepreneurs. For more information, visit cowork5508.com.
Contact Kenya Woodard at [email protected]