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Manhole cover, anyone? How about a used pay station

Published Sep. 29, 2005

(ran East, South editions)

Taking a cue from big cities, St. Petersburg will open a Central Avenue shop with new logo items and dusted-off relics.

Gift-giving and souvenir-shopping will never be the same.

In a narrow storefront on Central Avenue, the city is about to start selling items that residents and tourists alike never knew they wanted or needed. Parking meters. Street banners from the 1996 vice presidential debate. Custom-made street signs. Manhole covers.

Manhole covers? Why would someone buy a manhole cover?

"Tell you the truth, I don't know," said Jacqulyn Schuett, the city's events marketing manager. "They're unique salvage items. People seem to be interested."

Next month the city will open City Gear, as the stop will be called, with limited stock.

A grand opening is planned for November, in time for the holiday shopping season.

The store will be housed in a 500-square-foot corner of the downtown Municipal Services Center. It will be open seven days a week: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

The shop will be brimming with St. Petersburg logo items, such as umbrellas, denim shirts and mugs. Anything else that someone might want will get a price tag, too, including old posters, signs, T-shirts, hats and pens.

For the bargain price of $6,000, customers can even buy parking pay stations _ the fancy French ones that befuddled many a resident. The city has about 60 left to sell.

"It'd be a heck of a novelty," said parking manager Phil Oropesa.

By opening a city store, St. Petersburg is joining the ranks of larger cities all over the country that are trying to make some money off the junk that sits in warehouses collecting dust. The classic example of trash turned into treasure is an old parking meter desk lamp or gumball machine.

In San Francisco, signs saying "Clothing Optional Beyond This Point" cost $21.95. In Chicago, customers can buy Coca-Cola bottles found at the bottom of Lake Michigan for $15. In Fort Worth, Texas, 35-foot telephone poles sell for $10.

St. Petersburg has not decided how much to charge for these collectibles. Marketing officials will study prices at other city stores. The going rate for parking meters, for example, hovers between $40 and $250.

Oropesa said the 400 old-fashioned, hand-crank parking meters that St. Petersburg has to sell are probably worth about $90 each. Custom-made street signs cost about $10 each to make.

This year, the city is spending about $93,000 to ready the store, which used to house a locksmith business. The city plans to hire a full-time store manager, who will make between $22,000 and $25,000 a year. The city also is looking for three or four part-time clerks to sell memorabilia and answer questions about St. Petersburg.

For the next fiscal year, which begins in October, the marketing department has budgeted $134,000. About half of that will go toward salaries, wages and benefits; the balance will go toward ordering merchandise, paying rent and other bills, and advertising.

Even though the space is city-owned, the marketing department will pay $13,500 in rent.

"Hopefully we'll just have it packed with great items for sale," Schuett said.

The city hopes to turn a profit 18 months after the shop opens. But quirky salvage and souvenir items sold in city stores don't always bring in much cash.

"It's not going to be a huge moneymaker," said Craig Lerner, whose San Diego merchandise management company runs that city's shop. "It has to be in a good location." In San Diego, customers can buy doors from the old jail.

While St. Petersburg and other cities would like to at least break even, the goal of city stores is more than generating cash. They generate good publicity and good will.

The Fort Worth City Store has been open since 1995 and has never made money. Store manager Brenda McKinley, who recently took over operations, said the store could have been profitable had it been better managed and invested more in advertising.

"We lost money the last four years," she said. "This year, if we don't break even, we'll be very close."

She said the store sells "anything that nobody wants anymore," including traffic lights, fire hydrants and signs with bullet holes.

"A lot of it is strange to me," McKinley said. "My rule of thumb is don't ask questions."

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.