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Catalyze 2022: Mark Aeling, Warehouse Arts District Association

Bill DeYoung

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We’re asking thought leaders, business people and creatives to talk about 2022 and give us catalyzing ideas for making St. Pete a better place to live. What should our city look like? What are their hopes, their plans, their problem-solving ideas? This is Catalyze 2022

Leave it to an artist to see the bigger picture.

Mark Aeling is president of the 10-year-old, nonprofit Warehouse Arts District Association. His MGA Sculpture Studios in an anchor tenant at the Arts Xchange, the district’s main campus. Aeling’s massive steel sculptures are on view all over the city – at The Pier (the “First Flight” monument), the police station (both outside and in the lobby) and at the “St. Pete Rises” 9-11 memorial on 22nd Street South.

Heading into 2022, Aeling is anticipating the winds of change blowing through not just the Warehouse Arts District, but all over the city.

Opening Jan. 8 at the Arts Xchange is the Pruitt Arts Education Center, a home for art classes and public programs, including a state-of-the-art dance floor and rehearsal studio. “Our mission,” he says, “is sustainability for artists and the arts community, so no matter how the city develops there will always be artists in this community.”

Aeling is cautiously optimistic.

“I’ve had the opportunity to talk to Ken Welch about the arts on several occasions,” he explains. “He’s got a lot of experience with the county, and ‘bed tax’ was his mantra regarding supporting the arts during his campaign.

“I’m a little bit concerned that there wasn’t an arts representative on his transition team, and I’m really hopeful that he takes the arts community and the support of the arts seriously as he takes control of the mayor’s office.

“As a representative of the arts community, I’m going to be watching that closely.”

Others in his field are watching City Hall too, he says.

“The success of the arts as a moniker that the city has hung its hat on is not an accident. It’s come from a lot of really good people working really hard in the creative industry in this town. And a lot of the success that the city is experiencing is based on that success. And we’ve got to focus that energy. It can’t be just the arts organizations doing that.”

And therein lies the rub, Aeling believes. “WADA has worked on making affordable studios, and we’re going to continue to do that. And that’s all well and good, but artists have to have a place to live.”

Hello, Welch Administration?

“We need a concerted effort by the city to designate affordable housing. Yes, artists need affordable housing, but it’s more than just the creative community, it’s all of the things that make our culture lively, active and engaged.

“It’s the community members of color that are critical to that diversity – it’s artists, it’s people under 40, particularly the folks in their 20s, the hipsters that have shifted the demographic of St. Petersburg, that make it unique. The small business owners. The service industry.

“If we don’t have affordable housing, these folks don’t have anywhere to live. There are growing pains that people are beginning to confront.”

Despite what he describes as the good work being done by entities who “get it” (such as the Downtown Partnership) and are trying to keep a balance between business development and culture, the balance that makes St. Petersburg unique, there’s unease in the wind.

“We’re running out of room. We need to be smart, as a city, as to how long we continue this development. And I think it’s the city administration’s responsibility to really plan that course and not just let it run. Free-flowing capitalism is all well and good, but it has a tendency to push out those aspects of culture that are so vibrant, that create the soul of the community.”

 

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