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St. Petersburg pumps up the volume in a once-stiff downtown

"People used to come here to die. Now they come here to live," says Doug Hensel, a.k.a. DJ Fresh, a native who spins records and pumps up parties at a number of downtown spots.

By PAUL SWIDER, Times Staff Writer
Published February 3, 2008

As the crowd fills the dance floor, DJ Jayski mixes music at Kizmet. As the sun appears to set on the tea dances for seniors at the Coliseum, other dancing venues are opening in downtown that cater to a much younger group.
[Cherie Diez | Times]
[Edmund D. Fountain | Times]
Juliana Carvalho, 23, of St. Petersburg dances at Push at 123 Third St. S recently. Its owners considered South Tampa at first. "Not too many places have a downtown like St. Pete," said Amanda Hill, who opened Push with her husband, Seth.

[Keri Wiginton | Times]
Amy Friedman of St. Petersburg, bottom left, dances with Paul O'Byrne of Tampa at Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill in March 2007. Ferg's has offered dancing for years.

[Lara Cerri | Times (2007)]
Cesar Bueno, 49, of Seminole dances with Rhonda Smith of Clearwater in September at the Pier in St. Petersburg. Salsa dancing is likely to start there in March.

Growing up, Brendan McDowell knew there was nothing for young people to do downtown, so he and his friends would go to the beach or to Ybor City for entertainment. He didn't think he'd miss much when he moved to Sarasota for work.

But lately, the 26-year-old has found so much to like in downtown St. Petersburg that he keeps a second residence in the city so he can be close to a rapidly growing entertainment hub.

"The past 12 months or so, I felt the change," McDowell said. "There was always Martini Bar, but now there's something for everyone."

Push. Banbu. Kizmet. Bishop. Rare Olive. Tamiami. Soon, the Table and Vintage Ultra Lounge. A city once known as God's waiting room is becoming dancing-room-only.

"And you can walk to everything," McDowell said. "You can't do that in Tampa, unless you go to Ybor, and nobody goes to Ybor."

Some of the shift is organic as the city's average age has dropped and businesses have tried to appeal to a younger demographic. Some of it is deliberate as outsiders see the city as a burgeoning boogieville begging for the right venues.

"Not too many places have a downtown like St. Pete," said Amanda Hill, who moved from Utah and opened Push late last year with her husband, Seth. "We looked at Tampa - everyone told us South Tampa - but it didn't have the feel we wanted."

On a Saturday night, sleek cars pull up at Third Street and Second Avenue S to the valet stand at Push. Fashionably dressed people disembark and head for the dark entrance and a flight of stairs to Push's synesthetic center, a slender bar aimed at a dance floor glowing with sound, humming in technicolor. The sense is sophistication, shine and shadow, grown up but not grown old.

But Push is just one flavor. A few blocks away is Bishop Tavern, a long-standing establishment that has polished its New Orleans party-bar image under new ownership.

"There already was a young professional crowd here, but now the bar doesn't have a set crowd," said Dean Marshlack, who bought the bar in October with his father, Dave. "It's everything from college kids to 50-year-olds, coffeehouse crowd to preppie jocks to business guys."

Bishop is a warren of comfy cubbyholes and cul-de-sacs, but it squeezes in a DJ on a balcony and dancers below. Some nights there is a live band, but every night's a party that obviates the need to cross the bay for once-greener fields.

"It's the right kind of people come to the right town at the right time," said Doug Hensel, a.k.a. DJ Fresh, a native who spins records and pumps up parties at a number of downtown spots. "I've been waiting for this. I don't want to send our money over the bridge. I want to build this town."

Hensel has become a one-man promotional engine for the downtown scene, with just about every bar owner mentioning that he works for them or will. When he's not working, he makes the rounds of all the spots with a collection of friends, sampling the smorgasboard of sound and sensation.

"You can now club hop, not just bar hop," said Hensel, 27. "I've been saying for years that the first person to open a club big enough for 500 people is going to make a million dollars."

Push has that capacity and sometimes fills it, Hill said. Coming later this month is Vintage Ultra Lounge, a similar-sized venue next to Jannus Landing. One of the partners scouted the area for a year before being struck by the opportunity downtown.

"There's all these nice restaurants down here, but then the clock strikes 10 and everybody's scratching their heads wondering what they're going to do," said James Guttridge, 27, who has come here from New York via Sarasota, Miami and Tallahassee. "There is a need for more dynamic nightlife."

Vintage will have 5,000 square feet with high-energy dance music "at reasonable volume," Guttridge said, and light food. Banbu opened in BayWalk last month with some of the same elements.

"It's a nightclub at its heart with a restaurant inside," said Raphael Machado, assistant club manager at Banbu.

Banbu took over 10,000 square feet that was Dish and now runs a Mongolian barbecue for lunch and dinner. But at 10 p.m., they clear the tables, turn the circular grill into a second bar and crank up the music.

With a dance floor that holds 200, plus a wraparound balcony, platforms for professional dancers and a 400-square-foot high-definition television, everything's big at Banbu. Machado said crowds that would bury other clubs can get lost in the space.

"We had 800 people our first night," Machado said, "but it didn't look full."

The downtown market has room for even more variety. There have been DJs and dancing at the more casual Ferg's for years. Rare Olive has live bands, Tamiami is a more Floridian neighbor of Bishop, and Flamenco Bar, under Ceviche, has Latin music. Kizmet offers Latin, too, along with karaoke, live jazz and old-school R&B.

"It's a more dynamic downtown than it used to be," said Melvin Smith, one of Kizmet's threeowners and another native who has seen the city come alive. "It's becoming more vibrant. The people have taken ownership."

The real estate market is down and some offices are empty, but the late-night market belies any sense of doom downtown, partiers say.

"People used to come here to die," Hensel said. "Now they come here to live."

Paul Swider can be reached at or (727) 892-2271.


[Last modified February 2, 2008, 22:59:16]

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