A place to just be
By LEONORA LaPETER
ST. PETERSBURG -- More and more, Clearwater residents Brian Rieman and Mike Gregory spend their nights out at a small stretch of businesses on Central Avenue where they can play darts, get a bite to eat, maybe catch a theater production.
Rieman, 42, and Gregory, 31, are dating, and they say there are not many places to go where a gay couple can be themselves in Clearwater.
"There's not a whole lot outside of coming to St. Petersburg," said Rieman, a telecommunications project manager, as he and Rieman waited to play darts at Grand Central Station, a bar on Central Avenue. "I wouldn't say this is a gay district. But it's a gay area."
A business district that languished for years is seeing a re-emergence, and a number of the new businesses are gay-owned or operated. Feeding the businesses are many gay residents who live in several surrounding neighborhoods, including Kenwood to the north and Central Oak Park to the west.
Of course, not all, or even the majority, of the businesses in the stretch of Central Avenue are owned by gays. And many of the business owners -- both straight and gay -- cringed at the idea of labeling the area.
But there are at least a dozen gay-owned businesses in the neighborhood, and gay residents from St. Petersburg and other areas are taking notice.
"The people I hang out with, we stay in this area," said Steven Lyles, 38, who works as a bartender at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and moved here from Atlanta in June. "We don't venture out much. We just stay in this area."
Many of the gay-owned businesses are popping up along Central Avenue within the Grand Central District, which stretches from Interstate 275 to 31st Street along First Avenue N, Central Avenue and First Avenue S. Some of the businesses are just outside that area.
They include bars, restaurants, art shops, two leather shops, a massage therapist and a theater.
"This is my stomping ground," said Jason McNeil, a 27-year-old billing collection manager who moved to St. Petersburg from Indian Rocks Beach recently because he found himself hanging out there all the time anyway. "I've noticed an influx of gay businesses into Central Avenue, but I don't think we're here to take over."
Though there have been gay-owned businesses in the area for decades -- Grand Central Station, which opened in April, replaced a gay bar that had been around for decades -- it is the redevelopment of an up-and-coming area that has attracted the latest batch of gay business owners, said Brian Longstreth, a Realtor who is gay.
The area received a Main Street designation by the state earlier this year, which allocated money and technical assistance to the businesses. The city has plans for streetscaping that might include ripping up the asphalt to show the street's original bricks.
Longstreth moved to his office on Central Avenue about two years ago. He said many of his clients are gay, so he ended up showing many of them property in the area.
But Longstreth said one of the biggest milestones for many gays and lesbians was when St. Petersburg's City Council passed a human rights ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, employment and public accommodations.
"When we requested the city to make that change and there was so little opposition, it shocked everybody," Longstreth said. "I think it opened people's eyes to the fact that this is a laid-back community."
He said many gays and lesbians were moving out of Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Atlanta to St. Petersburg because they want a slower pace. They're buying property in the neighborhoods around the Grand Central District and starting businesses along Central Avenue.
"There are many gays who live in Kenwood, and I'm right below Kenwood, and the Suncoast Resort, the world's largest gay resort, is just 10 minutes away," said David White, 34, owner of LeatherWerks near 16th Street and Central Avenue. "So I was thinking, since there are statistically about 80,000 to 100,000 homosexuals in the Tampa Bay area, I was looking for a centrally located area for my business."
In May, Longstreth wrote an article in a gay magazine, titled, "Grand Central -- The Castro in St. Petersburg?" referring to a gay district in San Francisco.
But he and his brother, Jim Longstreth, who works for his realty company and is straight, are quick to point out that the district hopes to be a diverse community of art and design-oriented businesses attracting an equally diverse clientele.
Some gay business owners balked at being labeled for fear of losing patrons who aren't gay. Other business owners disliked even the idea of pointing out the number of gay businesses in the area.
"We don't divide up the world that way," said Ray Hinst, co-owner of Haslam's Book Store, which has been on Central Avenue for some 36 years. "We have gay customers; we have lifelong NRA members. We've got active military. We've got folks who've spent years overseas and people in government, and we've got retirees. We've got a whole variety of folks we do business with, and we tend not to draw lines and fix labels. It's not healthy."
Still, gay pride flags are beginning to show up on Central Avenue. Some businesses have the rainbow-colored flags hanging in their windows. Others have them outside the business along with the Grand Central District flag. Some businesses have placed rainbow stickers on their front windows, showing they are either gay-owned or gay-friendly.
Most of these businesses are owned by gay male couples or gay men, said David Hasiba, 53, who opened up Pig Boy Leather on Central Avenue with his partner, Gary Walker, in January. It is one of two leather shops on Central Avenue with a range of leather products, including items used for sexual play.
"The women are over in Gulfport," he notes, referring to lesbian-owned shops in that city.
Kris Doubles, who owns Grand Central Station with his partner, Jim Luscombe, said he thought gays and lesbians were always looking for a district where they can be comfortable. He said he talked all the time with gay patrons interested in investing in the area.
"We're not all about using gay businesses and keeping it all in the family," said Doubles, who used to be the resident manager at the Vinoy Resort before he and his partner opened up the neighborhood bar and dance club. "But when we can, we will support each other."
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