A gritty area west of downtown has been quietly growing as an arts neighborhood for several years and is working toward official status as the St. Petersburg Warehouse Arts District. Its advocates believe it's poised to become an important destination for artists and tourists as old buildings are being rehabilitated.
Instrumental in the movement is artist Duncan McClellan, who has visions of turning St. Petersburg into an east coast mecca for glass artists, much as Seattle is on the west coast. The plan has a running start with a permanent collection of works by glass supernova Dale Chihuly that opened in 2010 in a gallery on Beach Drive downtown, along with a hot shop for glass-blowing demonstrations at the Morean Arts Center, which owns the Chihuly Collection.
The proposed Warehouse Arts District is part of the larger Midtown area and overlaps with the Dome Industrial Park, the historic 22nd Street corridor known as the Deuces Live and a stretch of Central Avenue named the Grand Central District.
For decades, much of it was industrial (and part of it is still zoned as such), populated with warehouses and small manufacturing companies. The Seaboard Railroad Station, built in 1926 at 420 22nd St. S, was an important link between those businesses and their clients. But in more recent times, many of the buildings sat empty.
But artists saw potential. A warehouse has special appeal to those who like to work large or need heavy duty equipment. There are already about 16 arts businesses and organizations within the proposed boundaries including the Train Station Center for Clay which has occupied the Seaboard building since 2000.
McClellan gave the area a shot of glamor when he moved there in 2010, investing about $700,000 in an old fish processing plant at 2342 Emerson Ave. S and turning it to a studio, gallery and living space. He wants to add a hot shop on recently purchased property adjacent to his studio.
"This wouldn't be a place for daily demonstrations," said McClellan. "I see people from all over the world visiting here, working and giving master classes (much as the Train Station Center does for clay)."
Marina Williams recently moved her ARTpool Gallery to 2030 Central Ave., part of the proposed district. She has about four times the space now for her indie-art special events in several buildings that were once an automotive business.
"Our business is predominantly local but I have seen our demographic grow since we moved," she says. "We had people from London who found us on the Internet and we get more tourists."
The city has been an active partner in conversions. "We don't have money to give," Sophia Sorolis, the city's economic development manager, said. "But there are tax incentives. We identify available space for people who are looking and help with permits."
"We help them navigate the system," said Shrimatee Ojah-Maharaj, of St. Petersburg's Business Assistance Center.
There is no timetable for official designation, but Ojah-Maharaj, and City Council member Leslie Curran have no doubt it will happen. The district's tagline will be "Where Art is Made," but the boundaries, which may be adjusted, were chosen also to include places where art is exhibited, along with cultural centers such as the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum and performing arts venues such as the Royal Theater.
Artists long have been urban pioneers in renting and rehabbing dilapidated buildings, but they've often been priced out of buying in the neighborhoods they helped gentrify.
"The goal is for the artists to purchase the property if possible, not rent," said Curran, whose district includes part of the area.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.