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    Building contains state workers, their money

    Merchants near the Mary Grizzle building in Largo are chagrined that so few of the 286 workers patronize their shops.

    By ERIC STIRGUS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001


    LARGO -- The parking lot of this small shopping center was, as usual, almost empty.

    Inside the darkened Your Pizza Shop and Sports Pub, a man sat at the bar, nursing a glass of soda. It was lunchtime, but he was the only customer.

    The owner of the place, Mark Weber, said he gets some customers from the large building across the street, but not as many as Weber anticipated when he opened eight years ago.

    "Considering the number of people, I wish we can get more from there," he said.

    City officials thought business owners like Weber would flourish when the Mary Grizzle State Office Building opened in 1992, but that hasn't been the case. Many of the businesses near the building have folded since it opened. The shopping center next door and the one across the street have been largely vacant in recent years.

    The Mary Grizzle State Office Building, a 148,611-square-foot white structure with pink trim at the northwest corner of Ulmerton and Ridge roads, has its own cafeteria, making it convenient for employees to spend their entire workday inside, said City Manager Steven Stanton. The city manager compared the building to a "self-contained spaceship."

    "You go into the building and you never have to leave that building," Stanton said. "It's a lost opportunity."

    Some observers say Largo officials were misguided in thinking that businesses in the immediate area would prosper because of the building's presence.

    "I've haven't seen any literature that state buildings produce any revitalization," said Platon Rigos, a University of South Florida associate professor that specializes in government planning. "That should have been obvious from the start."

    Working in the Grizzle building are 286 employees from the departments of Children and Families, Corrections, Juvenile Justice, Insurance, Elder Affairs, Veterans' Affairs and Management Services. Before its construction, estimates of how many people would work there ranged from 500 to more than 700.

    The agencies pay $15.39 per square foot of space to operate in the building, a practice the state began in 1975. The money goes back into operating expenses, according to state officials.

    The state Department of Management Services, which operates state buildings, does not allow businesses to advertise inside its office buildings.

    City officials, some of whom have never been inside the building, admit that they have not done much to reach out to the state to promote neighboring businesses. Largo has had similar problems encouraging School Board employees, whose headquarters are in downtown Largo, to patronize businesses along West Bay Drive. They plan to do a better job as Largo moves forward with its downtown redevelopment efforts.

    "I think the city is uniquely situated to bring people together," Stanton said. "It's just a matter of developing relationships with the School Board."

    City leaders are not as optimistic about forging similar partnerships with the state around the Grizzle building.

    "I don't know what we would do," said Mayor Bob Jackson.

    Initially, Largo officials saw opportunity when state lawmakers began to consider an office building in mid Pinellas. A state survey team decided in April 1987 that the Largo Lanes bowling alley was the best site for the building.

    The voyage to bring the building to Largo seemed to be sailing smoothly until that June, when State Rep. Winston "Bud" Gardner, then-chairman of the powerful finance and tax committee for the House of Representatives, said he wanted the building in Clearwater. Gardner was angry at then-freshman legislator Sandra Mortham of Largo for voting against a sales tax on professional services.

    "Why should someone who voted against (the sales tax) be able to go home with one of the biggest turkeys in the budget?" Gardner said.

    But Largo had an guardian angel: Mary Grizzle, then a state senator from nearby Belleair Shore. Before construction began, Mortham suggested that the proposed building be named after the longtime legislator.

    The state decided on a tract of land on Ulmerton Road, just west of Ridge Road. A shopping center was being built there. Jackson, then a city commissioner, recalled that state officials preferred that location because there was talk that a rail line would be constructed near the site. It never was.

    Largo officials were practically giddy at the groundbreaking ceremony.

    "I notice the mayor of Clearwater is not here today," said then-Mayor George McGough.

    The shopping center next to the Grizzle building was filled with mom-and-pop businesses. Its anchor was a Kash n' Karry supermarket. The supermarket reopened at the strip mall across the street from the Grizzle, but it closed in April 1997. Company officials said business had dwindled for years.

    Many Grizzle building employees drive to the Largo Mall for lunch, although Boris Family Restaurant, which is in the shopping center next to the office building, has seen lunchtime customers come from the Grizzle building, restaurant employees said.

    Some employees are surprised that there isn't more commerce at the two shopping centers.

    "You would think so," said Carolyn Fox, a nurse at the Department of Elder Affairs.

    Sonjia Campbell still is optimistic about the area. Campbell owns Genesis Hair and Nail Salon, which she opened 10 months ago in the shopping center next to the Grizzle building.

    She was drawn to the site by the possibilities of the area. The Pinellas County Housing Authority bought the center next to the Grizzle building in December 1999 for $1.85-million. The agency plans to put its executive offices, which include 35 employees, into the space later this month.

    Campbell said she has three or four clients who work in the Grizzle building. She thinks there will be more from the Grizzle building, as well as workers from the county.

    "I'm anticipating it will increase as the word gets out," she said.

    Across the street, there are new tenants coming as well. The former Kash n' Karry will be reopened in April as an antique mall, according to Marty Miller, an agent for Commercial Corners Inc.

    Weber thinks that will help. Still, he has learned not to be dependent on his business coming from one location, or in his case, one state office building.

    "You can't expect one source of income to save the entire area," he said. "You can't put all your eggs in one basket."

    - Information from Times files was used in this report.

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