1. Opinion

St. Petersburg artists displaced as Salt Creek Artworks sale nears

Published May 17, 2012

A local institution will soon shut its doors, displacing some of the city's most prominent artists. The owners of Salt Creek Artworks at 1600 Fourth St. S are under contract to sell the building, which houses studios of 42 artists and two galleries.

The new owners, who decline to be identified, plan to raze the building to make way for a parking lot for the fish processing plant, just north of Salt Creek, according to Buddy Sauter, a broker handling the sale.

The community of artists that call the place home will have to be out of the building by July 1.

Word of the pending sale began to spread Wednesday afternoon. Tears followed. That the building will soon disappear from the local landscape has been a tough pill to swallow.

For 20 years, the family of the late C. Azell Prince has operated the arts space. The property has been in the family since the 1940s, but an ongoing dispute has forced the sale.

Prince created a space for the arts in the building soon after Perma House Interiors, a full-service furniture store, closed. It was a move to protect the building's zoning.

"The city would've changed the zoning to maritime industrial," said current owner Pat Burgess. "Daddy ran it for 14 years and I ran it for six years."

Salt Creek is off the beaten path of many art spaces in the Sunshine City. Nestled between the old fish processing plant and Mastry's Bait and Tackle shop along the east side of Fourth Street S, Burgess recalls when the city's trolleys refused to bring tourists there.

But Salt Creek has hosted some of the most eclectic art shows in the city. It is also where Much Ado About Art, a popular fundraiser for American Stage, was held for at least 13 years.

"Salt Creek has some of the finest artists in St. Petersburg," Burgess said.

Most would agree. Artist Lance Rodgers and photographer Herb Snitzer have had studios there from the beginning. Glass artist Duncan McClellan, who's currently leading a renaissance in the Dome Industrial District, once had a studio there.

"I've been here the longest and Herb came after me," said Rodgers, who has three studios in the building.

"Pat's been a true hero in the arts and most people in the arts community don't even know her name," he said.

"It's sad. It just breaks my heart."

Others agree. "This was a family (Prince, then Burgess) who believed in the arts and they made it easy for us," said Carol Dameron.

"They're like my family — I've lost everybody else," said Burgess whose parents died six months apart more than six years ago.

Burgess' home shows like a gallery — it's chock-full of artwork — half from artists at Salt Creek.

Burgess also has a brother in North Carolina and a son and daughter in St. Petersburg.

Surveyors were on the site Thursday morning when I dropped by. They were looking at both the Salt Creek building and the fish plant, which makes for one large footprint.

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"It will be a plus for the city — just think of the taxes," Burgess said. "Hopefully they'll be able to bring some jobs to the area, too."

Burgess expressed sadness about the artists who will be displaced. "I'm really hoping and praying that they (artists) can all be housed in the same place."

City officials have expressed concern about the soon-to-be-displaced artists.

"I'll discuss the matter with my manager and call these groups together to assess what their needs are and how best to move forward," said Shrimatee Ojah Maharaj, manager of the Business Assistance Center.

Others are interested, too. Sauter said he has been in talks with at least three investors.

"I'm dealing with real estate investors interested in the arts world," said the broker from Sauter and Associates, adding that he's hopeful the city will be willing to work with the investors to help ease the transition for displaced artists.

Through it all, some artists remain hopeful.

"I'm struggling with the idea of turning Salt Creek (Artworks) into a parking lot," said Dameron, whose studio is on the second floor. "I'm not going to shut the door on the idea that this could be a good thing,'' she said. "But it's hard."

Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at sgadsden@tampabay.com or at (727) 893-8874.


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