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Many good things are happening downtown

Excuse me if I sound optimistic, but do I detect recent events signaling new momentum for St. Petersburg's downtown redevelopment? Certainly the opening of the Stouffer Vinoy Resort last summer heads the list. How many years did we suffer the embarrassment of the vacant, decrepit building marring our waterfront? Can anyone now not be proud when they pass by or visit the Vinoy? Soon construction will begin on the adjacent Vinoy Villas condominiums.

The new streetscape improvements throughout downtown _ trees, flowers, lights, benches _ are very attractive. North Straub Park looks great. The new St. Petersburg Historical and Flight One Museum is a spectacular new addition along the approach to The Pier.

Beach Drive has never looked so good. Johnston's of Florida, the Papery, B. Chandler's Gifts, Glass Canvas Gallery and the nearby Bay Gables Tea Room and Freelance Flowers are all new businesses on the scene. Is it my imagination or is an arts gallery district starting to take shape? Keep your fingers crossed about bringing international art exhibitions into the former Maas Brothers building.

Look at what's happening on the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus. Construction of the combined laboratories for the USF Marine Science Department and the state Department of Natural Resources elevates St. Petersburg's marine research specialty to national stature. Expansion of the U.S. Geological Survey's installation on the USF campus is not far off. Other marine-related research activities will follow soon. The new Galbraith Marine Science Lab at Eckerd College is a key part of the attraction. The Poynter Library's construction at USF gets under way this summer.

Recent office leasing activity in downtown is the highest it has been since the mid-1980s. A survey recently completed by St. Petersburg Progress showed that during the past two quarters (last quarter, 1992 _ first quarter, 1993) nearly 110,000 square feet of downtown office space was leased and occupied by over 40 businesses and professional companies. Perhaps most striking on this front is that about two-thirds of these businesses are new to St. Petersburg and, in some cases, Tampa Bay. Only about one-third are relocations or expansions of existing companies. Some of the more prominent new businesses that recently have located downtown are Northern Trust Bank, Main Street Mortgage, Raymond James (and its new trust company), Earle Palmer Brown, SouthTrust Estate and Trust Co. and SouthTrust Mortgage Corp. Not included in this office-leasing survey are Bankers Insurance's purchase of the former Florida Federal Tower, or Templeton Funds' expansion into the former Lester Brothers property. Downtown's business base is growing again.

There is new activity in downtown's health care sector, the largest source of employment in that area of the city. Bayfront Medical Center and Suncoast Clinic are about to begin construction on a $40-million expansion and new medical office building. All Children's Hospital is expanding some research and administrative functions into the former Southeast Bank Building. St. Anthony's Hospital is completing various improvements on its campus, and taking a key leadership role in upgrading the surrounding "uptown" neighborhood.

Mayor David Fischer's recent initiatives toward upgrading residential neighborhoods on the fringes of downtown are critically important steps. New residential vitality for downtown is a must. The transformation of the former Mirror Lake School into 71 condominium apartments is a pioneering addition to downtown housing.

Some of the best news for downtown is the proposed AMC Multi-Screen theater complex, the next phase of the Bay Plaza project. Imagine it. Movies downtown! What will they think of next? It's exactly the kind of "shot in the arm" that both downtown and the Bay Plaza development need.

Lots of good things are happening in downtown St. Petersburg. It's refreshing, every once in a while, to step back and have a long look. It looks great. Let's keep it going.

Marty Normile is executive vice president of St. Petersburg Progress Inc. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which are not necessarily the opinions of this newspaper.

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