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Investors, artists, businesses merge as St. Petersburg's Warehouse Arts District gains momentum

“It’s an art project and also a community development project and an economic driver for the community at large,” Warehouse District Association president Mark Aeling said of the area.
“It’s an art project and also a community development project and an economic driver for the community at large,” Warehouse District Association president Mark Aeling said of the area.
Published Jan. 29, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — It's not just artists who see the potential of the Warehouse Arts District. A Polish vodka distillery, a high-tech company, a custom furnituremaker and a real estate investor who spent $1.7 million buying up property last year see it too.

Phil Farley, the investor, says Kozuba Vodka will make its first move into the United States later this year when it opens its distillery in a leased 20,000-square-foot building at 1960 Fifth Ave. S. Farley bought the property and five others over the past 12 months.

At the same time, a high-tech company with about 80 employees is in talks to build on another Farley-owned property in the district. And Farley is developing a 6,000-square-foot facility into a mixed-use project with office space and artists studios. He also has tenants in two other buildings, including a video and photography business and a studio where customers can rent tools to make crafts and build drones.

Farley previously developed 3 Daughters Brewing and Five Deuces Galleria a few blocks away in 2012.

"I want people when they come to St. Petersburg to feel they've got to hit the Pier, the Dalí and the Warehouse District," said Farley, who also developed Urban Style Flats apartments at 300 10th St. S near Tropicana Field.

The Warehouse Arts District runs between First Avenue N and 10th Avenue S, from 16th Street to 31st Street. It comprises an estimated 50 buildings of all sizes, some occupied but most vacant.

When the Pinellas Trail, which cuts through the district, was a railroad decades ago, the buildings were humming with employees and activity. They housed refrigerated storage for produce, sailboat builders and an industrial laundry.

The historic train station at 420 22nd St. S, home of the St. Petersburg Clay Co. and Morean Center for Clay, has been drawing artists and art enthusiasts to the area since the early 2000s. Glass artist Duncan McClellan enhanced the area for artists and their followers when he opened a studio and gallery at 550 24th St. S in 2010.

Furnituremaker T2theS started building custom pieces in 2004 with two employees in a rundown warehouse at 2262 Sixth Ave. S. The company now has 18 employees and is planning to buy vacant land in the district for a 20,000-square-foot manufacturing and sales facility. Construction would start within the next three months.

Co-owner Scott Fisher, who lived in the warehouse when the business started, marvels at how the area has changed.

"It's insane. I would always joke that it was sort of like living in the country. At 5:30 p.m. I was the only one here. You could hear the crickets," he said. "Now it's gallery crawls and bonfires and a lot more people."

"Crime has come down immensely," said the other T2theS owner, Derek Grasso. "Now you can walk through the neighborhood and know your neighbors."

Yes, the Warehouse Arts District has become a cool corner of town with several galleries, the Brocante monthly vintage flea market and the 3 Daughters microbrewery. But in two to five years the district could morph into one of the city's major draws, said Mark Aeling, president of the Warehouse Arts District Association.

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"We see it being a second-day destination" for tourists, said Aeling, a sculptor. "We want to activate this section of the Pinellas Trail."

Picture tourists and locals coming by bike, foot or car to shop at galleries, have lunch or drink locally brewed beer and watch artists create in their studios.

In December, the nonprofit St. Petersburg Warehouse Arts District Inc. bought a collection of six buildings on 2.7 acres at the corner of 22nd Street and Fifth Avenue S for $975,000. The group plans to develop a community for artists to create, show and sell, Aeling said.

"The interesting thing about what's going on is it's an art project and also a community development project and an economic driver for the community at large," he said.

The centerpiece of his group's vision is a 31,000-square-foot, 1930 building with 18-foot ceilings that once operated as Soft Water Laundry. The business cleaned linens for almost every hotel in Pinellas County for decades.

The facility will be renovated to house individual spaces, most of them 200 to 400 square feet, for artists studios and retail operations. Another building will include gallery space and a restaurant.

Aeling rents yet another building from the nonprofit for his sculpting business, which creates pieces that are installed around the country. Still another building houses Soft Water Studios, which includes five artists and a gallery that regularly holds events and classes for the public.

The association plans to finance its restoration with rent from artists and donations from the community. The city donated $75,000 of the $200,000 down payment the group placed on the buildings.

"Once the studios are online, the model is self-sustainable. We will not continually need to have our hand out beyond the initial building process," Aeling said.

One of the purposes of the project is to offer artists affordable space even as the Warehouse Arts District gets hotter.

"As development happens, values go up and rates go up. We've seen it happen all over the country," he said. "Look at SoHo (in New York). At one time, that's where every artist in the United States wanted to be and now you'd be hard-pressed to find a single artist there."

He points to the 600 block of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, which drew artists five years ago with cheap rents when the area needed revitalizing. Now that it's popular, rents are going up and several artists can't afford to stay.

"It's wonderful that somebody is coming in and redeveloping this part of town, and the jobs that come with that," Aeling said, referring to Farley's investments. "The challenge for the arts community is to make this a sustainable community and not a flash."

Having artists in the area was one reason Kozuba Vodka chose St. Petersburg over Tampa, according to co-owner Matthias Kozuba. They also considered Miami, but costs were much higher.

Kozuba and his brother and father started making craft liquor in Poland in 2005 but the audience there is slower to embrace locally made products over name brands. The U.S. craft movement prompted them to move operations here.

"Also in America it's not a big deal to spend $50 on a craft whiskey, while in Poland you buy something that expensive only for a present or at Christmas," Kozuba said.

The company will start with about seven employees making vodka and whiskey. Production should start in April.

"And maybe some fruit liquors with all the fruit here," Kozuba said. "We will use orange peel for sure."

Contact Katherine Snow Smith at kssmith@tampabay.com. Follow @snowsmith.

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