Late last year, artist Johnny Vitale was driving down Central Avenue in St. Petersburg on his way home from a job, when he noticed something going on around the Crislip Arcade. Workers were renovating the historic building, which was constructed around 1926 as a shopping center in pre-air-conditioning days, and the adjacent storefronts. Despite its heritage, by 2009 the Crislip's yellow brick front and decorative gate had been boarded up, contributing to a sense of blight along the 600 block of Central Avenue.
For Vitale, business was just starting to recover from the recession. During the slump, his sign design and production company, Vitale Art Studio, had taken a hit, shrinking from eight employees to one. The painful downsizing included giving up a large warehouse that served as the business' home. But as he drove away in December from a job with a new client, Vitale felt ready to start expanding again, if slowly. And at the newly refurbished Crislip and surrounding buildings, a landlord eager to fill the storefronts with creative businesses made the artist an offer he couldn't refuse.
Vitale signed a lease on New Year's Eve. After that, "everything got better," he says.
Now, when Vitale exits his storefront — which doubles as an art gallery with rotating shows — on Central Avenue's 600 block, he walks through a kind of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood of artists and entrepreneurs. Tenants in the complex make up a diverse roll call of creative businesses: Misred Outfitters, a boutique stocked with vintage, used and reconstructed clothing; Bluelucy, a graphic and web design company that also uses its storefront as a gallery; Dazzio Art Experience, watercolor-maven Judi Dazzio's visual arts academy; and Robinson Brand Builders, a long-established marketing firm, are just a few of the 30-odd tenants.
Many of the owners tell stories that echo Vitale's hopes of growing an existing small business, while still others have taken advantage of the complex's low rents to launch entirely new ventures. But what all of them seem eager to buy into is the symbolism of the arcade's rehabilitation and its owner's commitment to supporting the "creative class." When Sara Stonecipher, a clothing designer and former corporate stylist, and her husband opened Misred Outfitters three months ago, they were taking a shot in the dark, she says. On a shoestring budget, she decorated the boutique's interior with vintage hatboxes, thrift store paintings and clothing racks made from metal pipes. Selling used apparel in a rough economy has turned out to be a savvy move — the business has been "more successful than we ever imagined," Stonecipher says — but the designer wants more than black ink at the end of a busy day.
"We really want St. Pete to work," she says. "We're not a dying city. We refuse to accept that."
The idea of a whole greater than the sum of its parts — hey, not only is my business going well, but I'm in this for the 'Burg — has become a mantra at the Crislip complex. Unlike a lot of economic development and creative class rhetoric, which seems rarely to find eager listeners among actual investors, this mantra of cooperation, commerce and creativity is one shared by the complex's developer, Tom Gaffney, though it's not a sentiment that he shared initially. When the St. Petersburg investor purchased the Arcade and three adjacent buildings two years ago, he planned to "land bank" them — meaning, in real estate parlance, to let the plot sit, unused, indefinitely, until another buyer came along.
"Honestly, if you would have told me in 2008 that I would be developing this property, I would have laughed at you," Gaffney says.
But by last summer, Gaffney found himself persuaded by City Council Chair Leslie Curran and other community members that letting the unused buildings — then vacant of tenants but filled with old furniture and junk — shut down a long strip of Central Avenue would be doing the city a disservice. Following a "yard sale" of the buildings' contents organized by Curran, Gaffney put local builder Gary Burnside to work hauling away the junk and refurbishing the storefronts and arcade. At Curran's encouragement, he offered leases on the renovated storefronts specifically to artists and other creative businesses at roughly half the market rate for commercial space downtown.
When word got out, dozens of hopeful tenants called. With input from Curran and new tenants like Vitale, the developer and the builder curated a group of tenants that included a cluster of individual artists in smaller spaces inside the arcade itself and a mix of businesses along the block — from retail stores to a video production facility and an importer of African furniture and jewelry.
"You cannot exist on just galleries," Curran says of the variety.
By February, some new Crislip building tenants began to meet with the block's established businesses. Collectively, the group decided to brand themselves as the "600 block," complete with a logo designed by Bluelucy, to attract more customers. On May 8, nearly every business on the block participated in a street party that drew hundreds of participants. For Foolish Pride Tattoo, a three-year-old studio located on the block's south side, the party led to a one-day spike in piercing business. Though it's unclear whether the Crislip's reopening has had an effect day-to-day, Foolish Pride manager Bart Grignon says it has changed the way the block looks and feels.
"It's not depressing anymore," he says. "It looks beautiful."
Cassandra Bradshaw, a stylist at Star Booty hair salon on the block's north side, says the Crislip's retail tenants in particular have helped draw more traffic to the salon.
"I personally think the new businesses like Misred, House of Merch and 667 Central [a body jewelry store] are helping out a lot," she says.
Anyone familiar with the standard narrative of gentrification — first the artists move in, then big business comes knocking — has to wonder if the Crislip's creative commune vibe will be crashed by the equivalent of a Starbucks — or any tenant who can afford to pay top dollar for the space. "That's not my agenda," says Gaffney, who is quick to note that he's no philanthropist and doesn't plan to replicate the Crislip experiment with his other investments. Tenants like Bluelucy point to five-year leases in support of their faith in the developer's intentions, though other tenants have signed for much shorter terms. Burnside is more direct:
"I know the money that [Gaffney has] spent, and I know the rents that are coming in — and I can sum it up in a few words: think of it as a gift to the city," he says.
For now, at least, being part of the rehabbed Crislip complex feels like "a dream," says Bluelucy co-owner Phillip Clark. With continuity along Central Avenue between existing arts institutions like Florida Craftsmen Gallery and the Morean Arts Center — as well as nearby [email protected], which has leased an annex space in the arcade to host events and use as a gift shop — the revamped block has given a boost to the 'Burg's arts community, at least in terms of morale. Amid one-of-a-kind paintings and merchandise printed with their anime-inspired graphics, a trucker hat bearing the "600 block" logo sits in Bluelucy's storefront gallery.
For Clark, a former Bostonian, the 600 block shows that St. Pete is a "place you can change."
"I think sometimes artists get a little afraid of each other," he says, "and they forget how powerful we can be together."