Only a handful of vendors remain ahead of the Feb. 13 closure, but others have been scrambling to pack up and move as soon as possible, while some tough it out until the bitter end. On Wed., Feb. 2, multiple vendors rushed to pack their stalls up as fast as possible, to avoid paying a prorated rent for the remaining two weeks—news that was delivered to them just that morning.
Skyway Marina’s vendors aren’t sure where the root of miscommunication lies, but it is an inconvenience, and more importantly, jeopardizes their businesses and livelihoods.
Sixty-eight year-old Martha Johnson, who sells ceramics and other collectibles at her business Martha’s Vineyard, told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that she walked into Skyway Marina on Feb. 2 and was told by management that she had to pay a prorated amount of rent if she wanted to stay until the mall’s last day. She says the remaining vendors were told that if they paid rent through the end of January, that the last two weeks would be rent-free time to pack their stalls up.
Johnson, who’s been vending at Skyway Marina Mall since it opened in 2017, says there’s been miscommunication since the beginning, but stresses that it’s been especially bad since last summer when Marina Beach—an eight-story mixed-use development with 400 residential units, a LifeStorage facility, and a yet-to-be-determined fast food joint—was approved by St. Pete’s Development Review Commission to replace the existing mall.
A 70-something year-old vendor named Richard shares a large stall with Johnson vending oriental collectibles. He refused to pay the prorated rent, and opted to leave the mall as soon as possible instead.
“If they try to come into my stall and take my things, I’m calling the police,” Richard—who did not want his last name mentioned— said as his voice cracked through tears.
Both Richard and Johnson are looking for another place to peddle their vintage wares, but every option they’ve looked into is just too expensive. They both live off of social security, as do most of the other vendors at Skyway Marina Mall.
“The owners of the building could care less about the business honestly,” Martha tells CL. “All of us were just used to paying rent and taxes until the owners found a good price for the building.”
Both Bonaddio and multiple vendors state that they were clearly told that construction wouldn’t begin for some time, and that they had two years left at Skyway Marina Mall. At that time, several tenants had just moved in and were planning their grand openings, reassured by Maximo Plaza Inc. that their immediate business would not be in jeopardy.
The vendors also said that Haghnazarzadeh and his son told them that Maximo Plaza Inc. would try to find them another space to continue the indoor flea market, after increasing everyone’s rent by 5%.
Shortly after that meeting, both the vendors and management say they started to notice small changes that indicated that the two-year promise they were given was in fact not the truth. Mary Williams of Paradise Made Simple, knew that it sounded too good to be true.
Her suspicions reigned true.
Throughout the fall of 2021, multiple vendors told CL that the lights were randomly ripped out of the Skyway Marina Mall parking lot, leaving dangerous debris scattered around. Vendors also began to notice surveyors and their little flags everywhere. By the time the small business owners found out that the mall would close in February of 2022, it was just a few weeks before Christmas—and they still weren’t given an exact date.
“Both Maximo Plaza Inc. and Allied Group Holdings have known for all those months, and to keep telling me two years is extremely unfair,” Skyway’s manager Bonaddio says. “This all could have ended so differently if they were honest to me and the tenants. We’ve had to find out the facts ourselves through every step of this process.”
It wasn’t until Jan. 14 that Maximo Plaza Inc. officially informed the tenants of the Feb. 13 closure. “We do sincerely apologize for this disruption, but as our costs increase and our rental income decreases, this decision is necessary,” a letter from the owners to the vendors states.
Chini of Chini’s Art is quite concerned about losing her only source of income when Skyway closes this weekend. She’s a stained glass artist who uses her small stall as a studio as well as a retail space.
In the far right corner of the 80,000-square-foot indoor flea market, she’s completely surrounded by barren stalls, secured off with a yellow rope.
When she started encountering problems with her mental health, Chini says that her stained glass art helped her get out of a dark place. She’s one of the few vendors that is lucky to have a plan for the future, as Chini and her neighbor Mary of P.M.S. will be able to sell their art at J + L Resale Oasis, a collaborative second hand warehouse based in Seminole.
The stained glass artist is still looking for another studio where she can create and teach her workshops, but is temporarily setting up a makeshift studio in her home.
Other former Skyway vendors are on J + L Resale Oasis’s waiting list, but have no idea when or if they’ll even be accepted. Some are choosing to retire, while others are focusing on e-commerce sales. What they can’t sell will either end up in storage, in their houses, or in the trash.
A majority of Skyway’s tenants don't know where to turn next, as vendor prices throughout St. Petersburg have skyrocketed, similar to the rent and the cost of living. A large chunk of its current vendors came directly from the 49er Flea Market, which closed in Clearwater months before Skyway Marina Mall opened.
If there were more flea market-like options in St. Petersburg— let alone the greater Tampa Bay area—the sudden closure of Skyway Marina Mall would not be so devastating for the 30-plus vendors there. Although markets and pop-ups are popular in The ‘Burg, many of the vendor fees are simply inaccessible for low-income folks.
“A lot of these people have nowhere to go. The rent here is $1.25 per square foot with everything included, and there’s nothing in this city that’s even remotely close to that figure”, Bonaddio says. “This entire process has been horrible for everyone—myself included.”
In comparison to Skyway’s affordable month-to-month rent, the smallest stall at the St. Pete Pier costs $515 a month, while the one-time vendor fee at the wildly popular Indie Flea ranges from $100-$300 per market. Mary Johnson of Martha’s Vineyard only paid about $300 a month for her shared stall at Skyway Marina.
Dougherty, who recently built the Marina Walk apartments where the gay club Flamingo’s used to be, purchased the other half of the Skyway Marina Mall plaza in 2020. The self-storage facility and Ace Hardware that are currently there will soon become The Manhattan—a nine-story, high end senior living community that will be neighbors with Marina Beach.
According to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser, Skyway Marina Mall and its surrounding property are still technically owned by Maximo Plaza Inc., with a 2021 market value of about $3.8 million.
“I've been on a lot of the boards in the Marina District during my time here, and it had been voted on a long time ago in agreement with the city that no more storage facilities, no banks, and no fast food places would be built here,” Bonaddio says. “When the planning for Marina Beach was proposed, there was no pushback against it—no one said anything.”
Besides The Manhattan, there are many other high-rise apartments beginning to take over the Skyway Marina District— which stretches from 30th Ave. S to 54th Ave. S along 34th St. S. These recent Allied Group developments join Sur Club and The Addison Skyway Marina—two luxury residential complexes that together offer 604 units.
The cheapest apartment at The Addison is 619-square-feet and runs for $1,727-$2,000, while units at the resort-style Sur Club start at $1,875 a month for a 740-square-foot space. Skyway Marina District, which opens today, is an affordable housing development with a majority of units starting at $762 for a one-bedroom apartment.
Although many tenants direct their frustrations at him, Bonaddio tells CL that there’s been a whirlwind of miscommunication between the current owners and future owners of the property—and that he’s been stuck in the middle.
The manager of Skyway Marina Mall says that he’s unsure if their neighbors at Maximo Storage—who have about 600 tenants— have even gotten a move-out notice. When asked by CL when they planned to relocate, Maximo Storage declined to comment.
“In my opinion, they kept us here so that full rent would keep coming in, just to sweep the rug out from under our feet when it was convenient,” Bonaddio says frustratingly. “It’s the same story as Wagon Wheel and other flea markets that have closed.”
Bonaddio was told that demolition at 4401 34th St. S could begin as early as March; the Tampa Bay Times estimates that Dougherty will break ground in August 2022.
What some described as an “underutilized shopping center,” generated vital income for a wide variety of people who depended on it—lower-income people who are elderly, retired, or disabled. Not a single small business owner who remained at Skyway Marina Mall through its final weeks felt like they were treated with respect.
Gwendolyn S. Fields, who was a librarian at the Library of Congress in D.C. for over 30 years, summarizes the closure of Skyway Marina as “just really disappointing.”
More than half of what she sells at her business Vitu International comes straight from Africa, from countries like Zimbabwe and Senegal that she’s visited over the years.
“I haven’t been treated fairly, and the new vendors have been treated even worse,” Fields, who’s been a tenant at Skyway since it opened, tells CL. “February is Black History Month, and it’s always been my biggest-selling month, and to be going through this now is very sad.”
Skyway Mall Marina in southside St. Pete will be open until 4 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 13 before its doors are shuttered for good.
When you drive by the new Marina Beach development next year, don’t forget about the folks who were displaced and deceived in order for it to exist.