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West Tampa uncovering its hidden beauty

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By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003

Rick Caldevilla was renovating his Caldeco Mechanical Services storefront office in West Tampa when he made an interesting discovery.

As he removed the green stucco from the walls of the old Eagle drugstore on Howard Avenue, he discovered a beautiful mural that stretched the length of the room. The colors on the red brick wall have faded, but the artwork is still visible. On one end appears to be a Cuban landscape. The other includes a painting of the Statue of Liberty.

The pleasant surprise is just one of the deserving rewards Caldevilla has received since he assumed the challenge of setting up shop in West Tampa 10 years ago. Caldevilla didn't have to fight off others for the property back then because talk of a West Tampa comeback was practically nonexistent.

Now the buzz is audible. The tools appear to be in place for a revitalization of the historic district. It has already been designated as an enterprise zone and the city has matching funds for businesses renovating their facades.

The Ellis-Van Pelt Office is a model for what can happen in the area. On the first floor of the old A. Santaella & Co. cigar building is the headquarters for the office furniture company. On the second and third floors are converted offices with hardwood floors. They share common areas and a lounge, and the lector stand is still in place.

A photographer and an artist are among the occupants, and paintings adorn the wall. An art show is scheduled for May 9. It fits perfectly with the rise of the creative class goals city leaders desire.

And by the way, all the offices are rented and Ellis-Van Pelt has a waiting list.

Other projects are flourishing. The Church of Scientology has made the 95-year-old Andres Diaz Building shine, construction continues on the Urban League/Centro Espanol building and the old Carnegie library.

The district is dotted with other cigar factories suitable for renovation. The Morgan Cigar building on Howard and La Salle just south of Interstate 275 could prove inviting for someone looking for 60,000 square feet of fix-it-up space.

Don't be surprised if a deal is soon consummated.

The most important step could be the approval of an overlay district for West Tampa. Community members have worked on the measure, set to be addressed by the City Council this summer, for nearly two years.

It would basically require new businesses and homes to comply with compatibility guidelines set by residents in the community. The goal is to bring back the pleasing aesthetics of the old neighborhood such as front porch homes and awnings.

"Things are going to happen once we get the overlay in there," said City Council member Mary Alvarez. "Once we have that in place, there will be a level of comfort to developers who want to come into the district."

Caldevilla said he has seen a significant change in the last three years. When his renovations are complete, the new office front will have windows -- and for the first time in a long time, the windows won't have bars.

I guess bright pictures are popping up all over West Tampa.

* * *

Here's another sign of the city's revitalization: the GTE Federal Credit Union will break ground on new headquarters Monday that will consist of a 125,085-square-foot building and a 20,000-square-foot information technology center.

And they're doing it in Tampa Heights. The credit union is looking to gain more visibility and help the city reclaim its prominence with this new campus, which will be at 711 E Henderson Ave.

You know, maybe this city is going to look better five years from now.

* * *

That's all I'm saying.

-- Ernest Hooper can be reached at 226-3406 or .

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