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Community Cafe to be ‘kicked out’ of Central Avenue location

The cafe known for its drag queen story hours and community mission says landlords won’t renew its lease. Now, it’s searching for a new space.
Patrons eat lunch and cool off inside of the Community Cafe during the St. Pete Pride Street Festival along Central Ave. in St. Petersburg. [LUIS SANTANA | TIMES]
Published Nov. 7
Updated Nov. 7

ST. PETERSBURG — Community Cafe owner Mandy Keyes opened a letter Tuesday with a shocking declaration: She has less than one month to clean out and leave her space on Central Avenue.

The property owners, the letter said, would not be renewing the lease set to end Nov. 30. For the past six years, Keyes’ business has been a staple in the Grand Central neighborhood of St. Pete. Keyes’ vision was simple: Be an open, safe space for everyone in the community.

“There were no indications of this,” she said Thursday about her landlord’s decision. “We have been talking about just the opposite. We were going to stay and expand, not be kicked out.”

Some days the cafe is filled with donation items for those in need to take home for free. The cafe hosts free swap meets, film screenings, live music, local art — and a drag queen story hour that has attracted protesters from a county over.

RELATED: Drag Queen Story Hour in St. Petersburg draws protesters. We went inside

Keyes has always stood firm in her support of her St. Pete community. Now, many are returning the support as they help her desperate search for a new location.

“We are going to try to save Community Cafe because it’s irreplaceable,” said Olga Bof, a small business advocate, and head of Keep St. Pete Local. “It’s so inclusive … and if it closes its doors, (no one) will step up and do what they’ve done.”

Drag Queen Viktoria Sommers reads Dr. Seuss to children during Community Cafe's drag queen story hour this August. [ALLIE GOULDING | Times]

Keyes expected no issues in renegotiating her lease. In fact, she hoped to extend it to cover the tenant space next door. Icon Residential, developer of a new townhouse complex, was using the space as a showroom, but Keyes said they were set to leave at the end of the year.

Keyes said she had a positive relationship with the couple who own the building. Since the letter, she hasn’t had any contact with them.

“They once told me they see me as their granddaughter,” she said.

Property records with the county show the building is owned by RMD Associates, which purchased the three-tenant strip for nearly $500,000 in 2016. State records list two St. Pete residents as its managers.

Reached by phone, manager Wesley Demmon declined comment and deferred to his attorney. His attorney, Jason Ellison, was out of the office Thursday.

Bof said she could easily see that portion of the block get purchased by a high-rise developer. The ongoing land-grab downtown, matched with rising rents, has made it difficult to keep small businesses prosperous downtown, she said. But Bof said the landlords could also be less-than-thrilled with the drag queen story hour and the protest crowds that have gathered outside.

The contention seemed to peak during a August story hour, but last month Keyes said no protesters showed up.

Keyes is focused on following up on rental leads and keeping her 10 employees working. A Facebook post Community Cafe shared asking for tips on open spaces amassed more than 260 comments and nearly 500 shares in less than 24 hours.

“It’s been affirming to see community support since that’s always been the goal,” Keyes said. “This is what I’m meant to do and just because this ... is happening doesn’t mean I’m not succeeding in my goal of building community.”

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the developer using the showroom, Icon Residential, due to a reporting error.

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