DADE CITY — The name has changed, but not the mission. Larry Guilford still wants the former car dealership on Seventh Street in Dade City to be an enjoyable destination.
So does his lead tenant.
"We do want it to be a fun place for everyone. That’s still the plan,'' said Melanie Armstrong, owner of Savory Roots Catering.
The fun last week, accompanied by sips of champagne and nibbles on muffins and fresh fruit, was hoisting a gold-colored sledge hammer and taking the first wacks at an interior wall slated to come down. The ceremony, attended by more than 100 people, marked the start of redeveloping the former car dealership that has been vacant since 2013.
Interior demolition work was scheduled to begin Sept. 30 on the buildings that will house an events and entertainment center now called The Block.
When real estate investor Guilford, 68, first publicized his planned downtown center last year, he called it Highlands. It was a nod to the Highlands Motor Co. car dealership that once operated out of the collection of brick buildings on the site.
They discarded the Highlands name, he said, figuring it already had become a fixture in the area because of the nearby Highlands at Scotland Yards housing community.
"So, we’re sitting around and I said, "What do we have? We’ve got a whole city block here.''
The name stuck.
But more than the identity has changed.
The idea of a permanent food truck court has been shelved. Instead, there could be retail space and maybe even a craft brewery. There will still be a bar (unnamed as of yet), space for concerts and special events. Armstrong’s Savory Roots Catering will operate the commercial kitchen and provide food for the weddings, parties and other events.
The first tenant scheduled to open is Crossfit HCP, which will occupy the former car bays in the building space closer to Eighth Street. It plans to open by Feb. 1. The special event center is expected to be available for bookings after May 1.
"I’ve always loved the look of this building,'' Guilford told the audience gathered Friday morning amid red brick walls and high ceilings.
But he acknowledged doing a lot of soul searching before embarking on the redevelopment project.
"Some people though I was crazy, with good reason,'' he said.
Guilford’s Highlands Partners LLC acquired the buildings and land for $625,000 in a deal that closed in February. Another Guilford company previously purchased an empty lot across the street to provide parking for 60 vehicles.
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One of those attending the ceremony was Barbara Peterson, whose family once owned and operated Huckabay Chevrolet on the site.
"I think my father would be really happy and very proud to see what’s going on,'' she said.
Others pointed to the Seventh Street location as a key addition to Dade City’s downtown business district, since much of the city’s commercial activity is farther south.
"If you want to know why this is important, just look across the street,'' said Ben Borregard of Borregard Construction, the project’s contractor.
Directly across Seventh Street from The Block sit two empty store fronts sporting "for lease'' signs in their windows.