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Story and Photos By Larry Lewis - Rays fans heading for Tropicana Field via 5th Avenue South likely pay no mind to a gritty industrial area of small businesses as they approach 22nd Street South. They may pass a former metals recycler, a paver company, an engineering shop or the Cornerstone Boxing Club, “Where boxers are transformed into champions.”
Look closely, however, and there’s evidence of an emerging arts scene centered at this intersection and beyond. Echoing a national trend, passionate entrepreneurs are acquiring inexpensive spaces within cities and transforming them into art enclaves. The process began several years ago in this stretch of St. Petersburg with the opening of the Historic Seaboard Train Station, now home to a number of clay art operations. Artists there rent studio space and use the facility’s kilns to fashion their works, available for sale on site.
Fittingly, the former Ace Recycling property at 515 22nd Street S., now under contract for purchase by the Warehouse Arts District Association (WADA), is envisioned by the nonprofit group as the reimagined focal point for an ambitious expansion of the arts in what the city of St. Petersburg has designated as the Warehouse District, west of downtown. WADA organized in 2012 to nurture the arts within this 700-acre area, already home to hundreds of expressive endeavors ranging from cottage businesses to the hot shop for famed glass artist Duncan McClellan, a former fish and tomato packing plant.
This final act of recycling at Ace will transform the property into a Warehouse Arts Enclave, as envisioned during a recent fundraising tour. WADA faces a $350,000 down payment by Nov. 1 to buy the 50,000 square foot space, engage the architect, ensure environmental compliance and initiate the build-out of the first of four phases, creating 32 studios. Total costs for the property are pegged at just under $1 million. WADA members include artists, galleries, arts suppliers and the public, all of whom believe in furthering St. Petersburg’s exploding national identity as a destination point for the creative arts. From 2010 to 2012, the city topped a list of 25 mid-sized American communities for the vibrancy of its art scene, according to American Style magazine.
Bob Devon Jones of Studio@620 sits on WADA’s board of directors. Leading donors and press on the tour, he buoyantly asked those present to envision the final product among the existing I-beams, corrugated metal roofs and concrete flooring.
“Here will be a gathering space for creativity, community and commerce.” Air conditioned, affordable studios of assorted sizes will be home to photographers, sculptors, painters, graphic artists, metal workers, musicians, writers and more. Future plans include a gallery/exhibit space, performance venue, recording studio, offices and even a microbrew pub (“Socrates Café”) and food trucks. Classrooms will hold art lessons for area school students, enabling them to “imagine the world differently.”
In Jones’s view, the “I”s have it. Words like imagine, inspire, interact and incubate pepper the air as his tour moves among buildings betraying their industrial roots. Stationed along the way are artisans demonstrating their skills. A welder fabricates an intricate metal design while Abe Lincoln returns as a 7 foot wood sculpture. “Art has the unique ability to speak to us in unique ways,” Jones offers. The Warehouse Arts District already spotlights everything from young, experimental efforts to high-end artwork.
Not all existing space remains virginal. Several studios have been in operation for some time on-site, including MGA Sculpture Studios, whose Mark Aeling serves as the board president of WADA. He proclaims, “The development of the Warehouse Arts Enclave will ensure that there is affordable studio space for artists in St. Petersburg as the city continues to develop.” Rents for studio space at some nearby locations have been rising; a sometimes unfortunate side effect of an area’s blossoming.
MGA’s neighbor within the complex, Soft Water Studios, offers studio space for $400 a month, including utilities. Aeling also strongly believes in tying in the arts enclave with the Pinellas Trail, the pedestrian/bicycle way which runs adjacent to the property, as it does along the nearby clay art center.
He refers to the trail as the “Arts Gateway of St. Pete” and wants to provide direct access to the enclave, as well as other area studio spaces. Colorful murals along the trail will draw people into the community “Where Art is Made,” as WADA’s slogan reminds.
St. Petersburg is home to five arts-based designated districts: the Warehouse Arts, Grand Central, Edge, Central and Waterfront. On the second Saturday evening of every month, the city hosts a free Art Walk through studios, galleries and warehouses from 5 to 9 p.m. Trolley rides connect art lovers to more than 30 destinations, many of which are not normally open to the public.
The energy on hand these evenings highlights a symbiotic connection to the tremendous growth of St. Petersburg, in general. The building boom for living spaces in downtown signals an influx of new residents inclined to appreciate creative efforts, whether they’re retirees or young millennials.
Good ideas can be catching, too. The city of Dunedin has begun improvements and initiatives to create its own version of St. Pete’s success story with the arts, hoping to complement its neighbor to the south.
Business analysts from Dun & Bradstreet claim there are nearly 3,000 arts-related businesses in Pinellas County, employing more than 14,000 people who represent 2.8 percent of the county’s workforce. South of the Skyway Bridge, a rundown 42-acre stretch of Bradenton homes has morphed into the Village of the Arts, filled with some 30 art studios/residences and related businesses.
From a gutsy St. Pete neighborhood where boxers trained to one showering international attention on Pinellas County. As WADA tour guide Jones likes to remind his guests, “Imagine that.”
For more information or to donate go to www.warehouseartsdistrictstpete.com.