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Florida Craftsmen wants to buy building

The artists organization is trying to raise funds before another buyer can purchase the building housing its gallery.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Michele Tuegel is dialing for dollars.

The executive director of Florida Craftsmen was trying, on Friday, to raise $500,000. By Monday.

The money would be used as a down payment for the building at 501 Central Ave. in which the Florida Craftsmen Gallery leases space. It is owned by George Rahdert, a lawyer, developer and historic preservationist.

Florida Craftsmen has occupied the space since 1995 and has about two years remaining on its lease, so why the urgency?

It comes, said Tuegel, "because George called two weeks ago to say he had another buyer." She said she believed the price was in the range of $1.5-million.

"I would not characterize it as having an offer," said Rahdert, who represents the St. Petersburg Times on First Amendment issues. "There is interest, but I do not have an offer of $1.5-million. We're trying to determine Florida Craftsmen's interest so we can accommodate other parties."

Rahdert said that a sale would not affect current leases.

"Anyone buying it would have to accept my obligations," he said.

Both Tuegel and Rahdert said they and the organization's board of directors have been talking during the past year about Florida Craftsmen's purchasing the building, which also houses Ovo Cafe; Milagros, a furniture and gift shop; ArtSpace, a group of artists' studios; and meeting space for the congregation of First Church of Christ Scientist. The building has about 26,000 square feet of space.

Tuegel said Florida Craftsmen is interested in acquiring about 20,000 square feet, which would not include Ovo Cafe. The sale would not affect the restaurant.

She said she and Rahdert had no contract and had not agreed on a purchase price, but said, "It's more than $1-million and less than $1.5-million. I feel like we need $500,000 for the down payment in order to make the mortgage payments. And I think I need to prove to the board there is a commitment there from the community."

Rahdert said he did not impose the Monday deadline.

"It was something I imposed on myself," said Tuegel. "I don't have to have cash in hand. George is very flexible and supportive of us being here."

She said that come Monday, if the amount is not raised, she still wants to enter into a contractual agreement with Rahdert.

"He wants to wrap this up," she said.

"I feel morally obligated to give them first shot," Rahdert said. "It's hard to remember that when Florida Craftsmen moved in, 80 percent of Central Avenue was vacant. Their courage and pioneering effort deserves to be recognized."

Florida Craftsmen is a statewide organization founded in 1952 "to educate the public about fine craft art and to help the artists make a living," Tuegel said.

Tuegel, a well-known paper artist, became the executive director in 1988, when the organization had a budget of $4,000. Today, Florida Craftsmen's budget is $410,000. Its statewide membership is about 1,100; 90 percent of the members are artists.

Florida Craftsmen opened its first gallery in 1986 to promote members' work. It was located at 235 Third St. S, next to American Stage Theatre Company.

Tuegel said she at first laughed when downtown St. Petersburg was suggested as the site of a gallery, which could have been in many other Florida cities where members reside.

"I was living in Clearwater," she said. "And downtown here seemed so dead."

She said Hunnicutt Equities had recently renovated the building and offered them a favorable rent. They moved to MucNulty Station across the street in 1993, also owned by Hunnicutt. They moved to their current space in 1995.

About 125 artists are represented in the gallery, and rotating shows bring in internationally known craft artists. The current exhibition, Inventions and Constructions: New Baskets, features sculptural pieces that are a far cry from pedestrian woven baskets, with price tags of several thousand dollars.

Florida Craftsmen Gallery is considered one of the anchors of a stretch of Central Avenue often called Arts Avenue, lined with small galleries, antique shops, restaurants and another anchor, the Arts Center, two blocks west at 719 Central Ave.

"The location has been very good for us," said Nancy Karnavicius, who owns Bayprint with her husband, Al, and has been a board member for eight years and is its immediate past president. "It would be very beneficial if we could come to terms."

K.C. Clark, a senior vice president of Heritage Management, a subsidiary of Raymond James Financial and a member of the board's building committee, agreed.

"We developed the building committee to buy a building, preferably in downtown St. Petersburg. We looked at other options and decided they weren't feasible. I had hoped we would have time to do a feasibility study and develop a full-blown capital campaign. But George deserves an answer."

Rahdert and a partner purchased the building in 1994 for $110,000. Today its assessed value by the Pinellas County Property Appraiser is $465,200. With a $1.5-million price tag, the price per square foot would be $75.

"We think it's a very fair price," said Clark. "Maybe more than fair."

Rahdert said he is interested in selling the building, once the Rutland Men's Store and now called the Renaissance Building, because "I'm focused on improving historic buildings. Once you get it finished, you like to roll into the next project. This one's done."

Tuegel has sent a memo to board members and individual and corporate community patrons outlining the situation and asking for support. She has talked by telephone to potential contributors. She declined to say how much she had raised by Friday, but said, "I have no large gift yet. I could by Sunday morning."

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