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New-age firms at home in old-world buildings

From downtown St. Petersburg's Kress Building to the Snell Arcade, dot-com companies are finding the right space at the right time.

By SHARON L. BOND

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Neutron Digital sells cyberspace from the basement of the Kress Building, a 1920s landmark in the 400 block of Central Avenue.

From the fourth floor of the ornate and historic Snell Arcade in the same block, JetForm Corp. creates operating systems for handheld mobile devices.

Businesses of the Internet are thriving in buildings of the past in a cluster on Central Avenue. A glance at the workings of two of them show that while the tech companies operate in a realm not even imagined when the buildings were built, the old and new manage to meld.

At the Kress Building, small green, blue and white lights twinkle on Neutron Digital's two server towers that stand in what was the basement of a five and dime. There Neutron Digital connects medium to small businesses to the Internet in a variety of forms. For as little as $9.95 per month, a company can have a basic Web page. For $1,000 a month, a single customer can lease an entire server from Neutron Digital to handle its own group of clients. Less than 10 percent of Neutron Digital's business comes from Florida.

Kress first opened its doors in 1928 and remained in operation until 1980. It was a variety store, a five-and-dime retailer of the kind many downtowns had. In 1949-50 the store underwent a massive remodeling and enlargement, adding air conditioning, passenger elevator, a new mezzanine level with restrooms and a large lunch counter, and the basement was finished. It was then the second largest Kress in Florida.

After the Kress company left, offices of the city of St. Petersburg were in the building from 1985 to 1995. Then the building was bought by local lawyer George Rahdert, who represents the Times on First Amendment issues, and refitted and refurbished for offices.

Initially, locating in the Kress Building was a matter of economics for Neutron Digital.

"Between Tampa and St. Petersburg, we looked at 28 buildings before deciding on this one," said Brian Farrow, vice president.

"St. Petersburg was more cost effective," said Mike Architetto, president.

The Kress space provided extra benefits for Neutron Digital: basement protection for all of its sensitive equipment, location on the same power grid as Florida Power and a building that already has withstood time.

"This building is not going anywhere," said Mike Hengstebeck, national sales manager for Neutron Digital. He estimates that St. Petersburg has between 20 and 40 dot-com companies.

Several of them are in the Snell Arcade, which is on the National Registry of Historic Places and one of the city's more notable examples of Mediterranean revival architecture.

Developer Perry Snell created a glorious nine-story building in the late 1920s with European tile, graceful arches, statues and an ornate exterior that made the building resemble a castle turret. It featured a rooftop nightclub called Spanish Bob's.

Snell Arcade has housed all sorts of small businesses in the arcade portion, including clock, candy, shoe and photography shops. The upper floors provided offices for modeling businesses, architects, investment corporations and even a restaurant into recent times.

The Snell Arcade was boarded up for a while in later years and has undergone several renovations.

Now it is home to JetForm, the new name for Joey Technologies, which has been in the Snell Arcade for four years. Joey Technologies was acquired by the international JetForm, which provides systems for e-commerce worldwide. The former Joey will continue in St. Petersburg to build systems for the handheld computer market.

It chose the Snell Arcade because of its downtown location and beauty.

"We just liked the architecture," said Jim Connolly, president of the local company. "We thought, this is really cool: old building, new technology."

About a year ago, Connolly said he searched the city for other office space to be sure there wasn't a better deal or an office with more advanced computer hookups. He didn't find any.

The Snell Arcade "fell in line with everything," he said.

JetForm's business is to give users of handheld computers the most advanced software possible. One of the company's more recent jobs was with a home health care agency in Mississippi.

From the fourth floor of the Snell Building, senior programmer Brian Prescott created a system that allows agency nurses in remote locations to use computers to receive schedules and instructions from their home office and then send updated patient information back after home visits.

"The software eliminates a lot of typing," Prescott said.

"Ninety-five percent of errors are made during transcription," Connolly said.

JetForm occupies the fourth floor of the Snell Arcade and has room to grow. It is the parent company's intent "to grow this office," Connolly said.

- Researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

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