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Published Sep. 10, 2005

The three amateur baseball players from Rhode Island were at Dan Marino's Town Tavern and Martini Bar at BayWalk one night last week on a recommendation.

"We heard about it and were steered here," said Lou Manzolillo, 36.

"We heard it was a good place to hang out," said Eddy Givens, 38.

"We were looking for a place where there was a more professional type crowd," said Paolo Smith, 37.

Finally, they revealed the real reason BayWalk was a stop during their fantasy camp baseball week in Florida:

"The ulterior motive is women," said Manzolillo. "We heard it was good, from several sources."

A meeting place for the singles crowd is one of the more surprising evolutions for BayWalk, the $40-million entertainment/retail complex, which is completing its first year of operation downtown.

BayWalk is anchored by a 20-screen Muvico theater with stadium seating. It was built on two levels with most of the half-dozen eating places and bars on the second level. Some have outdoor seating. More than a dozen clothing, shoe, gift and jewelry shops take up the outer perimeter of the ground floor, which features a courtyard with a few kiosks, landscaping, and benches for tired shoppers or those who want to listen to the live music offered several nights a week.

BayWalk is not huge in size. It pays the city less than $200,000 per year in property taxes. But its effect on a downtown that 10 years ago was moribund or worse makes it one of the biggest developments in many years.

"I don't think anything we have done has had a stronger impact than BayWalk on the redevelopment of downtown," said Mayor Rick Baker. "We've never had a place where you can just go and hang out."

The social scene

"That is the destination if you are into the singles scene," said Craig Sher about Marino's. Sher is president and chief executive officer of the Sembler Co., which developed BayWalk.

Sher said the center also is a new social scene for teens and adults in their early 20s. He regularly drops his 15-year-old daughter there with friends for evenings out.

"BayWalk is doing better than expected," Sher said. "We've had 3- to 4-million people in the year since we opened." He added that Sembler really didn't know what to expect since BayWalk is different from any of its other shopping centers.

The baseball players saw BayWalk under construction last year. They had been to St. Petersburg a couple of years before that and were not impressed.

"We had looked for a place to hang out. It was pretty rundown. We were better off going back to the beach," Manzolillo said. He is a chiropractor. Smith is sales manager for an alcohol distribution company, and Givens is in academic advising at the University of Rhode Island. All are from Providence. They have been traveling south together for the over-age-30 baseball league for five years. This year, a friend who knows the area said St. Petersburg was the place to go, Manzolillo said.

They agreed on its new prospects as they stood outside the martini bar, still in their baseball uniforms, sipping drinks, ordering cigars and hoping to meet companions.

"Now we know to hang out here," Manzolillo said.

Bettina Lennick, 16, and Conor O'Brien, 21, said they wished there were more of a local feel to BayWalk. Both are from St. Petersburg and were at BayWalk one night last week. They pointed to Dish, Wet Willies and Dan Marino's, saying such chains or the like can be seen in just about every major city.

"I think some of it is a little too much for some people's blood," Lennick said.

How's business?

Muvico Theaters, based in Fort Lauderdale, has 12 locations, including BayWalk.

"BayWalk is doing very well. We had a great opening. We've had a great year," said Jim Lee, director of marketing for the chain. He put BayWalk's performance in the chain in the top 25 percent, or in the top three.

Other BayWalk tenants are doing well also, according to Sher. "People's Pottery is No. 1 in their chain. Ann Taylor is No. 3 in their chain. Wet Willies is No. 2 in their chain. The staff says that more merchants are doing better than they planned," he said.

Officials at Chico's initially declined an inside space in BayWalk, said James West, vice president for real estate for the Fort Myers-based chain. The women's casual clothing chain was named the best small company in the country last month by Forbes magazine.

Chico's didn't want to be tied to an entertainment venue, particularly a movie venue, because the movie industry overbuilt during the 1990s and is in the middle of a shakeout now.

"Our median age customer is 45 and typically not one to be hanging around movie theaters at 10 o'clock at night," said West.

The company did want to be in downtown St. Petersburg, he said. When offered a large corner space at the front of BayWalk not far from Ann Taylor, Chico's said yes, according to West.

"It's been a very good location for us. It has outperformed expectations," said West, who declined to disclose any sales numbers.

Downtown awakening

Tourists such as the baseball players are one target of BayWalk. So are local residents.

Downtown St. Petersburg began a renaissance several years ago with construction of three luxury condominium projects in which prices for some units ranged over $1-million. One of the missing ingredients was entertainment such as the movies, or as the mayor said, a place to hang out.

"We get more than our share of local residents," Sher said. BayWalk draws from north Manatee County and north Pinellas. "But our bread and butter is south of Ulmerton Road. I think more people are coming downtown."

Tami Jones lives in St. Petersburg and said she was at BayWalk the first night it opened.

"I love it down here," she said one night last week as she left White House/Black Market, one of the clothing shops. "The only place I haven't really been is Dan Marino's because I'm not really into the bar scene."

Jones, 43, said her 17-year-old daughter, who works at Tyrone Square Mall, likes BayWalk. "We meet here, and she'll do her thing and we'll do ours," she said of her daughter and husband. "I think it gives everybody something to do."

BayWalk also gives downtown a fresh, upscale look, Jones said.

Karl Nurse, 47, who owns a label printing company in mid Pinellas County and lives in St. Petersburg, said he and his wife go to the movies every Friday night, most of the time at BayWalk or the Beach Theater in St. Pete Beach.

"On Fridays, it's swamped," Nurse said of BayWalk. He was an unsuccessful candidate for mayor this year and is familiar with the issues of downtown.

"You can't get in Marino's or the place that serves daiquiris (Wet Willies). Johnny Rockets is swamped. You can't get inside the door. At the ice cream place (Key West Confections), there is often a line."

The traffic BayWalk brings downtown is important to Nurse.

"It's obviously pulled lots and lots of folks downtown who have never come before. That is a major benefit."

The city built a garage near BayWalk to take care of increased traffic. It also shortened the allowed time in parking spaces around the center and revved up the parking patrol to force patrons to use the garage.

"It works fine," Nurse said. "As a practical matter, if you are going to the movies, you have to park in the garage because there is no parking more than 90 minutes" around BayWalk.

Nurse said he considered the garage, which is a block away from BayWalk, to be safe. In September a city resident was robbed there at gunpoint but there have been few incidents overall.

BayWalk is not the answer to downtown problems for everyone, however. Historian Ray Arsenault, a professor at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg who wrote a history of the city, thinks BayWalk is a bit artificial.

"There are mixed feelings," Arsenault said. "For some people it has not produced the kind of cultural ambiance people had hoped for."

Two reasons for this are a lack of art films and foreign films at Muvico, and no bookstore. A large area of BayWalk was set aside for a bookstore, but it never materialized. That space now is being renovated for two retailers: a home furnishings store and leather goods shop.

"It's no different than Tyrone mall," Arsenault said. He worries it will "impinge on the diversity of the city."

Arsenault, though, praised the fact that BayWalk does "provide a kind of downtown gathering point, in some ways mimicking the mood of a small town square. Williams Park used to be like that. BayWalk is where you see people go."