ST. PETERSBURG — An estimated 40 percent of business properties at the southern end of 34th Street South are vacant.
Store and restaurant owners fear more small businesses will leave unless the area is rejuvenated. They have pinned their hopes on creating the Skyway Marina District to emulate areas such as the Grand Central District that have used branding, signs and landscaping to revitalize neighborhoods.
“Vacant businesses spawn more vacant businesses,” said David Baker, who owns the 120-room Flamingo Resort Hotel. In recent weeks, city leaders awarded funding for the burgeoning Edge District to seek Main Street designation from the state. But this week, the city delayed a $60,000 funding request to move the Skyway Marina District forward, frustrating residents who say their neighborhoods have been overlooked and the city has focused too much on areas close to downtown.
The issue has thrown the spotlight on the increased competition for limited city funding and resources as city neighborhoods seek to replace aging infrastructure and brand their communities, hoping to attract new businesses and jobs. That includes some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods such as Midtown, where community leaders are seeking funding for the Agenda 2020 plan to reduce poverty.
The proposed Skyway Marina District between 30th Avenue South and 54th Avenue South is populated with big retailers like Walmart and Publix. Dotted with small chain restaurants and a marina, it also is home to several fading motels and shopping centers the city wants to see redeveloped.
Residents and business owners have shown huge enthusiasm for the district with attendance at public meetings in the hundreds. Business owners also have formed a nonprofit group, one of the requirements neighborhoods must complete before the city awards a district designation.
Work on forming the district began in 2012, but organizers say the city has been slow to move the process forward.
In the interim, Baker said other districts and business corridors have forged ahead with improvements such as new curbing and sidewalks in the Fourth Street North corridor. The investment sounds modest, but it can make a big difference to businesses trying to attract and retain customers, Baker said.
“If I’m a customer, I want to go the place that looks the most modern, the areas that have been renovated,” he said. “If you go through a place that doesn’t look like its been renovated for 30 years, you’re not going to come back.”
Earning the district designation would enable residents and business owners to seek federal and state grants that could pay for new street lighting, sidewalks and signs. They envision sit-down restaurants, public art and a trolley service along 34th Street South. The city also is planning incentives for the first developer prepared to build a mixed retail-residential project in the district.
Strengthening neighborhoods was a central peg of new Mayor Rick Kriseman’s campaign, but little money was allocated for neighborhood development in former Mayor Bill Foster’s 2014 budget.
That prompted the city council to eke out an extra $300,000 before they approved his budget. About $120,000 of that money remains and it likely will be shared between the Skyway district and the Agenda 2020 project, Council Member Karl Nurse said.
“Both of them can probably be 90 percent funded,” Nurse said. “It doesn’t have to be something that pits one against the other.”