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Maximo Plaza merchants keep faith

One recent departure left 69 percent of the shopping center's space vacant, but the other tenants press on.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Maximo Plaza, thriving perhaps a generation ago, snoozes away on 34th Street S.

A few cars and some small trees dot the shopping center's parking lot, which is otherwise almost empty.

Driving past, you have to look twice to be sure there is activity at all on the west side of the highway between 43rd and 44th avenues S.

Yet a half-dozen tenants open their shops every day, refusing to give up on what would seem a less than desirable location.

They are small entrepreneurs who have persevered even as Moretti Indoor Karting (known as MoKart), a relatively big business with apparent international financial backing, pulled up stakes a few weeks ago.

When the miniature auto racing company left, 81,500 square feet became vacant -- about 69 percent of Maximo Plaza's total space.

Remaining tenants include a storage facility, a bicycle shop, a new and used furniture store, a hair salon, a canvas shop, a Christian bookstore and print shop, and an engineer who rents a storefront office.

They are tenacious and proud of it.

"We're all banded together," said Sherry Pringle, who owns Spare Room Mini Storage with her husband, Gene. "We've all been here a long time and have faced the same obstacles. We're all rooting for each other. We need each other."

Virtually all the tenants agree that Maximo needs more shops to open. They would also like the owners to take more interest in the mall. Signs, more lighting, landscaping and irrigation would be nice for a start, they say.

But the mall's majority owner, Josef Haghnazarzadeh, lives in California. The tenants believe the long-distance ownership creates a problem. Haghnazarzadeh couldn't be reached.

Commercial property specialist Lisa Ulrich is the property manager. She wants it known that 81,500 square feet is available to lease, and she'd like to get a major store like Wal-Mart, Target or TJ Maxx interested.

MoKart's departure was disappointing, Ulrich said. A new roof and $80,000 worth of air conditioning had been installed at the plaza, she said.

"We spent a ton of money and we're left holding the bag," she said.

Ulrich said she understands the need for more amenities at the plaza.

"There are things that are going to get done, but not on the tenants' time schedule, because they're not paying for it," she said.

Why MoKart left is uncertain. Its officials have not been available for comment. Maximo tenants speculate the mini-racing simply didn't draw enough enthusiasts.

But the tenants shrug and go about their business.

"We have the ideal location," said Cathy Cullins. She and her husband, Chuck, own Hi Seas Custom Canvas, which specializes in repairing nautical items like boat cushions and covers. Their 1,800-square-foot shop is within walking distance of Maximo Marina, and the shop does well. Five walk-in customers a day means a slow day, Cathy Cullins said.

Jennifer Laroda owns Colours Hail and Nail Salon and has been open for 21/2 years. MoKart's departure had no effect on her business, she said.

"We have no problem," she said. "We have our clientele. Our reputation is more one-on-one service," and word-of-mouth advertising benefits the shop, Laroda said.

Roger Mehan, who opened the bicycle shop a few months ago, laments what he calls a temporary look to the plaza, and Laroda agrees.

"If we could see something like a grocery store, it would be excellent," she said. "Just to make the area look busier."

Clatties Dawkins, who owns the Print Emporium, a print shop and Christian bookstore, has the longest tenure of the current tenants. She opened three years ago.

"We can't afford to do major facelifts," she said.

"If we had parking lights at night, that would let people know we're over here," she said.

Reinforcements may be on the way.

A health foods store will move in soon, Ulrich said, along with an established Ace Hardware store from another shopping center.

"It's a very real possibility," said John Klinowski, who opened the hardware store at Skyway Plaza on 62nd Avenue S three years ago. A potential space problem there may dictate a move.

"I frankly think we could do better on (U.S. 19), but I'd also have to give up the Kash n' Karry and neighborhood business," Klinowski said, referring to Skyway's anchor tenant grocery store.

Maximo once had its own Kash n' Karry and such enterprises as a Big Lots, a Bass shoe outlet, a men's store and a gym. A movie theater that served beer, wine and light food also boosted the center's appeal during the 1980s.

Ulrich traces Maximo's decline to the mid-'80s and a long real estate depression, from which some commercial property is still recovering, she said. The plaza's tax valuation has dropped from about $4.3-million in 1992 to about $1.56-million, according to county records.

But Ulrich is confident the center can rebound, partly because it exists in an area with at least two busy shopping plazas, plenty of restaurants and fast-food outlets and vital residential neighborhoods.

"I believe this center's time has come," she said. "We need some mid- to large-size retail in the section to put the cap on the revitalization."

The nearby Broadwater and Maximo residential neighborhoods have been experiencing a dynamic housing market, say their neighborhood association presidents.

"We're undergoing just a tremendous metamorphosis," said Broadwater Civic Association president Bill Protz. Houses for sale aren't staying long on the market, he said. And many of the newcomers are with Ceridian Benefits Services, a company establishing its headquarters a few blocks away.

"We'd like to see some good solid businesses, something that's going to get the traffic rolling in (Maximo Plaza)," Protz said. "We'd like to see it turn into something that's wholesome and family-related."

The Pringles, who own the mini-storage units, got out of farming in Minnesota because of rising expenses and low commodity prices, a typical Farm Belt scenario these days.

They decided to start over in St. Petersburg and leased 20,000 square feet to open in October 1997. They reached 100 percent occupancy at one point, and opened 33,000 more square feet last year, Sherry Pringle said.

Gene Pringle said "hanging in there are the key words."

But he is philosophical about the plaza's shortcomings.

"The reason why most of us are here is that the plaza has been empty and the rent has been more reasonable. You can't expect to be buying the blue-light special and get a tuxedo," he said.

Said Sherry Pringle: "None of us really expect to get rich here, though that would be nice. Realistically, we just want to be able to pay our bills and put food on the table."

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