ST. PETERSBURG — Kendra Marolf was behind the lobby bar of the State Theatre, pouring vodka sodas for a weeknight crowd packed tight for Bishop Briggs, the latest alternative artist to sell out her club.
"We want more of these nights," said Marolf, the State's general manager. "We want less of the nights from 10 or 15 years ago."
Back then, the State was among the few draws on the 600 block of Central Avenue, a dead stretch of storefronts in a lifeless downtown. But as the 600 block has come alive, the historic theater has decided to evolve, launching a stylish rebranding campaign.
The block's boutiques and nightspots played a key role in downtown St. Petersburg's cultural renaissance. The State is one of the last left standing from those lean years — a reflection of how the block's growth has squeezed out shops that once defined its artsy, after-hours vibe.
The city has made preserving the character of businesses a priority, but what's happening along the 600 block shows how hard that might be. Since 2015, rising rent has forced several businesses to close or relocate. Across from the State Theatre, a Miami investment group is taking over most of the building that includes Daddy Kool Records and rock clubs Fubar and the Local 662. The Local 662 will close in June.
"All the businesses that were conjoined as forces and friends have basically been booted out," said Nick Marcisin, general manager of the Local 662. "Everything's growing, which is awesome and everything, but it's killing the local music scene."
Now, the last vestiges of a district outsiders helped build may be slipping away.
"The small shopkeeper is not going to be able to afford those kinds of rent," said Tony Rifugiato, co-owner of Daddy Kool and the State building. "The only people that are going to be able to afford those kinds of rents are restaurants and bars."
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The first push to reinvent the 600 block came around 2009.
The Crislip Arcade, once earmarked for destruction to make way for a $35 million condo project, survived the wrecking ball thanks to a sinking economy.
Then-City Council member Leslie Curran pitched an idea: Offer five-year leases to local artists at $5 per square foot, seeding the Arcade with creative enclaves, spurring foot traffic. Within a couple of years, the 600 block was a legitimately hip destination, earning notice from travel writers in New York, Boston and Miami.
"I think it definitely did what I envisioned to begin with," Curran said.
Some artists and gallery owners left when their leases ran out and rents rose. But with three successful rock clubs, the block remained a magnet for night owls. It wasn't uncommon for a musician performing at the State to get styled at Star Booty Salon, tattooed at Foolish Pride Tattoo Co., supplies at Guitars on Central and music at Daddy Kool.
Business owners could see change coming in 2015, when two high-profile additions were announced for the nearby 700 block: The new Chihuly Collection museum and a Publix. Both would be major pedestrian draws, driving up rent in the process.
"Twenty-five (dollars) per-square-foot is the new asking price," said Mimi Reilly, who owned Star Booty at 681 Central for 18 years before moving out in September. "When we left, we were probably paying around $11. That's too hefty a jump for us."
At Foolish Pride, rent jumped from about $10 per-square-foot eight years ago to more than $20, said co-owner Brandon Pearce. At Fubar, rent rose from "well under $20" per-square-foot to more than $40, said owner Jay Aresty. Two spaces are listed at similar prices: 660 Central Ave. at $38, and a loft at 661 Central Ave. at $25.
Octave, a karaoke bar at 661 Central, was replaced by the Lure, a sleek nightspot serving grasshopper tacos and $12 Snickertinis. Foolish Pride gave way to Bartique, a boutique serving craft beer and wine.
"It's now gotten sort of middle-agey, I would say," Reilly said. "Little boutiques are not for alternative people or for kids."
After 10 years at 671 Central, El's Menswear's lease will expire in October. Owner Badr El-Amin said his rent will jump from $954 per month in 2016 to about $3,000. Property owners have offered to set him up with a multi-year lease in an office around the block, plus $5,000 to defray moving costs, if he leaves early.
But while the current space needs repairs — you can hear rats scampering above the ceiling tiles — he doesn't want to leave.
"Ninety-five percent of my business is walk-up," he said. "I sit out there on that chair and I talk to everybody."
Jason Rutland Spitzer, the property manager and Re/Max leasing agent for storefronts stretching from 661 to 685 Central, said demand for the block is "probably higher than it's ever been." Consider the Star Booty space: Despite keeping the property off major sites, and declining to show it during construction, Spitzer said he's gotten 50 to 70 calls about it.
This week, Miami's Tricera Capital is expected to close on a purchase of storefronts from Fubar to Seventh Street. Next to Fubar sits Suncoast Medicare Supply Co., which owner Barry Baldwin has also agreed to sell to Tricera. That gives the company control of all but two storefronts on that side of the block.
"We were really drawn to this block and this area in particular because of what's going on with everything around it," said Tricera co-owner Scott Sherman. "We see how the street was changing before we came in, with all the new developments happening around it, but we like what's going on on that block, and we think there needs to be a balance."
Daddy Kool and Fubar will stay in place for now, albeit with new awnings. Sherman didn't offer specifics on who might occupy the spaces in between, but said they would likely be food-related.
"Our plan," Sherman said, "is to work with some of the guys that have been there, like Daddy Kool Records, like Fubar, to have live music and mix the old with the new."
Aresty is committed to keeping Fubar a "real small, dive-bar, punk-rock music venue."
"It's a neighborhood bar, and we're sticking it out in an area that's going to be marketed as a big-time retail and restaurant spot," he said.
They are, however, making adjustments. Fubar will add outdoor seating and start opening at noon instead of 4 p.m. to take advantage of the block's daytime foot traffic.
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The changes have filled some 600 block veterans with a certain dread, Marcisin said.
"In all of our eyes, we do know the block is dying and will be gone."
While Curran described the area as "an extraordinarily vibrant block that keeps growing," she sympathizes.
"There's a lot of concern down there, and I appreciate that, and I think there should be ..." she said. "It's a delicate balance."
Early this month, Mayor Rick Kriseman announced plans to have Central Avenue and Beach Drive designated "independent corridors" where small businesses could thrive instead of chains. On May 26, he sat down with a council of small business owners to start a discussion.
"We're looking at Central because it's kind of the spine of the city, but it's something that you have a concern about across the city," Kriseman said. "There's a lot of businesses that are here that give us our uniqueness and our funk. You like to do what you can to help them survive so that they continue and the city continues to have that unique feel and balance. But it's a balance."
Already, a handful of 600 block expats, including Star Booty and Foolish Pride, have relocated to the 200 block of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St., an area some are calling the Fringe District.
By the end of summer, the State Theatre will have a new facade nodding to its early days as a movie house, and a new Art Deco-style mural in the lobby. The State's new logo uses retro-chic, black-and-white typeface — "19th Century American Wood Type coupled with delicate flourishes," according to Evolve & Co., the branding firm behind the venue's reinvention.
"We really wanted to freshen up the image," Marolf said. "St. Petersburg is really exploding with possibilities."
Upgrades could help sell the State not only to national booking agents, but local groups who might rent it. That includes the popular St. Pete Indie Market, which launched on the 600 block in 2012. Starting this week through September, the Indie Market will move into the State Theatre on the first Saturday of each month — its first reappearance on the block in two years.
Changes like that might keep longtime 600 block patrons coming back, even as the businesses that once drew them drift away.
"The quirkiness of the block," Marolf said, "is what we want to keep."
Times staff writer Susan Taylor Martin contributed to this report. Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.