Few people know about the Channel District. Tucked between downtown Tampa and Ybor City, its blocks of dingy warehouses are for most a passageway to somewhere else. But the ongoing construction of the Florida Aquarium and the expansion of Tampa's cruise ship facilities soon will bring many more visitors there.
A handful of artists and urban pioneers have made the area's renaissance their goal. Among them is Patrick Doyle, who with his wife, Rosemary Orlando, owns the Warehouse Theater.
"People don't come down here," Doyle said. "When I ask people where the Florida Aquarium is, they say "When are they going to start building it?' The only people who know where the aquarium is are from Brandon. They use the Crosstown Expressway when they come into Tampa, and they see it."
Doyle, 42, is the son of a Bartow phosphate executive. After years of acting, writing and traveling all over the country and the world, he decided, with Orlando, to stake an artistic vision to a mass of poured concrete.
Seven years ago, they bought a well-worn 60-year-old building, the 12,000-square-foot former home of Reeves Fences and Kent Water Meter Sales. The first time Doyle walked inside the place, the hair rose on the back of his neck. He had seen the building in his dreams.
"In my dream, I lived in a circus tent," he said. "When I opened the flap, I was in a warehouse. That's what it was. This is it. This was in my dream. It was very bizarre."
They paid $210,000, through a complex financing deal. Banks wouldn't even accept the building as collateral. A few months later, the real-estate market bottomed out. But he doesn't regret their purchase.
"I was very excited to get this close to downtown," he said. "There were only two directions for downtown to grow: north, where the performing arts center is or here. I felt this area was much more interesting."
Doyle lives in Sulphur Springs, but he knows the Channel District and the warehouse as well as if he lived there.
"I fell in love with this building," he said. "I've been very intimate with it. It's brought me here late at night. I've been intimate with the roof, the plumbing."
Even though he has had the place a long time, his excitement still shows as he walks around the roof pointing out the landmarks: the site of the old banana docks, how all the warehouse alleys once had railroad sidings, the mirrored side of 100 North Tampa reflecting the image of the Landmark Centre at night.
"I'm seduced by the urban scene," he said, looking off toward the high-rises.
Inside the theater, they built a stage and a 99-seat house. They installed bathrooms and cadged furniture from the set of a CBS Movie of the Week, With Hostile Intent, shot in Tampa. It hasn't been easy. Every production of plays and one-acts _ which has included Amy's Pitiful Legs, Modigliani and Closing Time in Paradise _ has lost money. It's been rough going for Doyle and his wife, who is the theater's artistic director.
"We have paid in blood. Our family has made sacrifices. Getting through the '80s was hard," Doyle said.
Doyle and Orlando have two children _ Adrienne, 7, and Lea, 4. Orlando teaches drama at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg. Doyle makes money performing at birthday parties and banquets.
Doyle has been involved in performing arts in Tampa since the 1970s. The difficulty in sparking wide interest in creative pursuits here has made him think about leaving many times. But he has since come to find the value in a vacuum.
Doyle closely watches the handful of other artists who are setting up workspaces in the Channel District, and the couples who are renovating post-and-beam brick warehouses into loft-style houses. He reguarly meets with them and city officials in a group to discuss issues facing the district.
The expansion of the cruise ships port, and the completion of the aquarium scheduled for next year, are expected to bring visitors with time to kill and money to spend.
"On my roof I can see ships coming in and out. They're a great part of the changing urban landscape. A ship is a 15-story building. In the morning it's here. In the afternoon it's gone," Doyle said.
"Artists are usually the first ones to see the possibilities _ interesting architecture, the history. I think artists usually have a sense of history. Somehow artists take the time to walk and look and see the environment."