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Timing's everything for backers of Hip Hop Soda Shop concept

The Tampa shop will open first, fortuitous for two men.

By PAUL SWIDER, Times Staff Writer
Published October 14, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG- The first HipHopSodaShop will open in Tampa, not St. Petersburg, but the enterprise will contain organic elements of both communities and connections to both.

Delayed for more than a year, the health food restaurant and music-themed video-gaming business was to start in a former Chinese restaurant at 8901 Fourth St. N, but will instead open this year at 1241 E Fowler Ave., the former Bull Ring Sports Bar.

The Fourth Street location may open next year on a smaller scale than originally planned, the company said.

Investors in H3 have closely followed progress in the attempt to marry popular hip-hop culture and investment capital in a positive entertainment venue. Company officials felt they had to act fast after the St. Petersburg location was delayed by expensive zoning requirements triggered by its gaming component, said Dr. Ben Chavis, president and chief executive of H3 Enterprises, the company behind the concept shop.

"As a publicly traded company, it's in the interest of our investors to have a store open as quickly as possible," said Chavis, the former head of the NAACP who took over H3 this June. "I can't have us waiting another year."

Area entrepreneurs will be the beneficiaries. Eric Green and Eric Von Billington formed E&E Global Enterprises this year to pitch H3 on a Tampa shop for the second location. When Chavis decided he had to move fast, he had E&E as a ready replacement to manage the business.

"We were waiting in the wings," said Green, 49, who runs Everyone's Youth United, a nonprofit educational organization in Childs Park. "Now it looks like we're going to be first because we were prepared."

Green met Billington through the latter's work with St. Petersburg's city-run television station. Billington, 35, a Tampa video producer, filmed Everyone's Youth United events and later taught video production to EYU youngsters. The two found the Fowler site as part of their research for H3.

"We had every intention of opening after St. Pete," said Billington, who left his city job this year. "Now this is almost a turnkey."

Chavis said H3 signed a lease on the 11,000-square-foot Fowler property last week. The space requires only minor renovations to become a full-service restaurant with the multiple video games that make up the HipHopSodaShop concept.

"We have to do this right away, but we have to do it the right way," Chavis said of the concept, colors and features of the restaurant. "This will be the prototype. It has to be a real restaurant with games that work, but we don't want people walking in and saying, 'Oh, this is like Hard Rock Cafe or Dave and Buster's.' "

The restaurant will have dozens of Internet-connected video games and plasma screens. A business that has more than 10 video games becomes classified as a "commercial recreation center," Chavis said, and in St. Petersburg that forced additional renovations to separate the business from the adjacent neighborhood. Tampa's zoning is different.

Mark Shelton of MA Shelton Construction said H3 has put in about $150,000 of the eventual $400,000 required to renovate the Fourth Street spot, but requirements for a large wall and disruptions over multiple utility easements were slowing the remainder of the renovations. He said work would take eight weeks, but permission has already taken months. City officials say they've not delayed the project.

The new arrangement, though, is a further mesh of the principals, and principles, behind the Tampa location. H3 promotes itself as an entertainment venue but also an educational tool to show urban youth how to succeed in a positive investment environment. Green said that blends with the goals of Everyone's Youth United, which he will continue to operate alongside his work with H3.

"One of the things that caught my attention was the community empowerment, the hip-hop-meets-Wall-Street aspect," he said of H3's stated mission. "So this is a perfect fit. We'll be able to take kids to Tampa and show them the finished product, what happens when you get your head together and work toward something."

Green said he has also talked to H3 about E&E being involved in the management of the St. Petersburg store when it opens next year. Chavis said that 6,000-square-foot store will open but it may be a smaller version so the number of games doesn't conflict with the zoning of the property.

Paul Swider can be reached at pswider@sptimes.com or 892-2271.

[Last modified October 13, 2007, 23:08:11]


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