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New, old, ethnic, quirky

Ken Schwartz remembers his first thought upon seeing the former Big Daddy's amusement center on Park Boulevard: "The building is really a dump."

Schwartz bought it anyway.

In doing so in 1998, he became the vanguard of the boulevard's ongoing redevelopment.

Park has had a long journey from a rather tacky strip that sported rundown mobile home parks, used-car dealerships and pawnshops with stuffed, costumed gorillas out front to a throughway featuring national chains and upgraded commercial properties with high-end condominiums tucked behind.

The biggest changes have occurred in Pinellas Park, where new shopping centers and home improvement stores lure people to stop rather than just pass through.

"There's so much energy," said Schwartz, who gutted Big Daddy's to create the futuristically styled headquarters for his food service consulting company, SSA.

"I think it will only get better," he said. "This is the street to do it and now is the time to do it."

The boulevard's transition was complicated by the conflicting nature of Park itself.

It is a state-owned road that serves as an east-west artery across the county and as a hurricane evacuation route. As such, the state wants to speed traffic along with few delays.

But for Pinellas Park and Seminole, the boulevard is "Main Street." Those cities want to slow traffic so drivers have a chance to see the businesses on both sides and become curious enough to turn off to wander elsewhere in those cities.

Seminole City Manager Frank Edmunds said that implementing change along Park can be difficult because the city often has to work with other "jurisdictions that may not have the same interests."

Perhaps it's that dichotomy that helped Park develop its surprisingly quirky character as a road where SSA's avant garde architecture can coexist comfortably on the same block as an 1892 wood-frame building that once served as a house of ill repute.

The building, Park Feed, is one of the Pinellas Park's oldest. It started as a German bakery, which moved out around 1930, said Brad Gentile, son of Park Feed's owners. It was turned into a feed store around 1942, but during the intervening years, it had many incarnations - brothel, church, general store.

It has also had a rather tense relationship with the city government, which at times has not appreciated the wood-frame building with peeling red paint. City officials have urged the building be spruced up, something the Gentiles have resisted.

"They want to fix it up and make it pretty," Gentile said. "Why take away the ambience of this building?"

The feed store still has a sizable customer base with Pinellas Park horse owners.

Then there's Linda Lee, a native of Vietnam who opened a restaurant on Park about three years ago. She likes her Pinellas Park location but would like to see traffic slow a bit.

Her restaurant, the China Lantern and Pho Hoa Dang, is one of many ethnic businesses along Park that reflect the area's increasingly diverse demographics. You can also find a Hispanic grocery, an Indian spice market and Thai restaurant there.

"I think Park Boulevard mirrors what's going on all over our town," Pinellas Park City Manager Mike Gustafson said. "I think the cool thing about Pinellas Park is the mix."

West of Pinellas Park, the most notable spot for change is at Belcher Road, where the Mustang Flea Market once stood.

In its place: a new shopping center anchored by Publix and Lowe's.

On the undefined horizon is what will happen to the 20 acres now occupied by the Golden Lantern Mobile Home Park, 7950 Park Blvd. It was sold Monday and is scheduled to be razed.

It's unclear what will be built there, but at one time high-end condos and a small retail center were proposed.

Development has spilled into Seminole, where a multimillion-dollar condo project sits near the boulevard's second Home Depot, new restaurants and another new shopping center.

City officials are trying to improve the look of the streets and the style of allowable architecture to create an identifiable city style.

Right now, the biggest feature is the Seminole Mall, often referred to as the city's downtown.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at 893-8450 or lindberg@sptimes.com.

By the numbers

The diverse business offerings on Park Boulevard mirror changes in the community. Since 1990, minority populations in Pinellas Park have doubled.

41,725

Whites in Pinellas Park in 1990.

40,652

Whites in Pinellas Park in 2000. (While the city grew, the number of white residents decreased.)

2,856

Hispanics in 2000, an increase from 1,414 in 1990.

1,951

Asians in 2000, up from 810 in 1990.

952

African-Americans in Pinellas Park in 2000; in 1990, there were 419.

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