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The plucky underdogs

Some entrepreneurs see Central Avenue as fertile ground. Even veterans are optimistic, though it's a slow evolution.

By MARY JANE PARK
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 23, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- Like volunteer plants that spring up in a landscape, new businesses have sprouted along Central Avenue, most noticeably between 20th and 26th streets.

Not yet is the area an imagined lushly shaded allee teeming with pedestrians, boutiques and sidewalk cafes, but a couple of restaurants have opened in recent months, along with shops that offer needleworks resources, gifts and vintage furniture. Work has begun on a small theater.

"We are gradually evolving here into an arts and design district," said Suzanne LaBerge, who manages the Main Street program for the Grand Central District, an area that extends roughly from 18th to 34th streets between First avenues N and S.

Lucky Day, 2520 Central Ave., is one of the most recent additions and offers gifts, cards, jewelry and books that are hand-bound by owner Amy Durand. She opened the shop in May.

Durand, who spent most of her growing-up years in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, moved to St. Petersburg about a year and a half ago. She lives in Historic Kenwood, a neighborhood that overlaps the city's Grand Central business district, and she likes the convenience of walking to work "when it's not too hot."

"I like being part of an up-and-coming neighborhood," she said.

Anne Smith is moving Adeline's from the Maximo area to an Art Deco building at 2036 Central. The business, which carries bed and bath linens, home accessories and aromatherapy products, is set to open in mid July.

"I think it's going to be a nicer shopping area," she said, "so we want to be in on the ground floor of that. Of course, being across from Haslam's Book Store" is an asset.

Candy Katsarakes opened Needlearts at 2113 Central Ave. in February. "The rent was reasonable," she said. "I want to put my money in inventory."

Her store offers a vast array of hand-painted canvases that range from classic to whimsical designs, threads and accessories, plus classes in various needlework techniques.

Katsarakes had traveled the world as an art director for various corporations. After she gave birth to twins, Alexandra and Perry, 15 months ago, she began work on her retail business.

"This is the only other thing I've ever wanted to do," she said.

Nearby, at 2101 Central, Bret Trifler and Barry Jones opened Central Thyme last summer, primarily as a space for their catering business. The restaurant serves lunch only, although Trifler said he is receiving an increasing number of requests to add dinner.

"We're very pleased," he said. "We found great support from people in the neighborhood. One of our goals was to become a neighborhood place, and that's sort of what we've become."

Businesses and professional offices in the area are enthusiastic customers. "Some of them are in close enough proximity that they're walking," Trifler said.

At Grand Central Cafe, 2451 Central Ave., Beth Jackson attested to neighborhood support. Grand Central opened in February and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a steady stream of customers throughout the day.

"There is much more traffic on the street and a lot more pedestrian traffic," said LaBerge, the Main Street program manager.

Ben and Christine Zeller opened Cool Stuff Gallery at 2462 Central last December, selling designer furniture, lighting and accessories from the 1950s and '60s.

"I just see this as an up-and-coming area," Christine Zeller said, adding that May was the shop's most profitable month thus far.

Brett Lassiter, artistic director of Bradenton's Riverfront Theatre for the past five years, plans to open the Central Stage Theatre Co. at 2235 Central in early August. He is converting a warehouse into an 80- to 100-seat venue.

"I find Central Avenue just to be just an incredible place to be," he said. "I love that part of town, with all the antique shops. I think St. Pete has a very inviting attitude and a welcoming nuance about it. I think St. Pete is conducive to new works, something that will challenge the audience."

Lassiter envisions presenting "smaller, contemporary plays" such as Six Degrees of Separation and Jeffrey. He'd like to do a Rocky Horror stage production. The idea, he says, is to offer early evening entertainment, "say, from 8 to 10," that will attract people to the neighborhood after dark.

Central Stage will not be a union company, "but we will pay," Lassiter said. He hopes to use actors from throughout the Tampa Bay area.

At 2612 Central Ave., site of the old DTs bar, Kris Doubles and Jim Luscombe are refacing the building and replacing electrical and mechanical equipment. Grand Central Station houses the Station and Club Terminal, the former a neighborhood meeting place, music video bar and karaoke venue, the latter a dance club.

"It's an 80-year-old building that has been an alternative lifestyle club for 30 years," Doubles said. The business caters primarily to gay patrons.

"We had expectations, and they've just been blown out of the water," he said. "It's interesting. When you have a gay venue like this, you pretty much have an instant audience. We have big faith in this area, and we just think it's going to explode in the next couple of years."

Even Central Avenue veterans are optimistic.

"Central (Avenue) might be changing a little," said Abraham Reid, who opened Abraham's Moving and Furniture Galore seven years ago and later bought the building. "It's a long process."

He chafes at some of the regulations imposed on the area; some of his neighbors have complained about his choice of paint colors for the stretch of the 2300 block he owns: It is mostly red, with white and blue accents.

He is enthusiastic about the new city bus terminal and said one of his goals is to teach furnituremaking and upholstery techniques to recovering drug addicts.

Haslam's has been a neighborhood business for nearly 70 years. Co-owner Ray Hinst said he had considered moving the bookstore out of St. Petersburg.

"There was a time when we were considering leaving," he said, "but our roots are sort of here, and the folks in this area have certainly been good to us. ... We elected to stay.

"I think (Central Avenue) has turned a corner, and it turned a corner sometime back."

As evidence, Hinst mentions having seen a jogger run past the store, and women pushing baby strollers along the sidewalks. Families are moving into lofts above first-floor businesses.

Main Street grant money is helping merchants to be more savvy about running their businesses; there are plantings along the walkways and plans to install brick inlays and street flags that identify the area.

Friday afternoon, those in the Grand Central District Association collaborated on Summerfest, a street event that offered live entertainment and classic and antique cars along with discounted merchandise and tours of shops, galleries and restaurants.

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