Dorian Speaker’s grandfather, Willie Davis, owned a cement finishing business at 2300 4th Avenue South for 45 years. In 2015, Speaker and his wife Maria bought the property from his family, and moved their business, America’s Most Reliable (AMR) Movers into the space.
As Dorian tells it, when his grandmother sold him the property, he had to promise to keep it forever. He had long loved the property – and its connection to his grandfather – so it wasn’t a tough promise to make. But by his own admissions it needed work. It was aged from years of tough weather. The fencing was tattered, the red siding was becoming decrepit. The doors were old and rusted. The windows were covered with bars. Patches of grass were all that remained of the lawn.
In 2016, the City of St. Petersburg began reaching out to the Speakers, asking if they were interested in fixing up the property, and letting them know that the city was starting a grant program that would help them cover some of the cost of the upgrades.
That was the very beginning of the City of St. Petersburg’s South St. Petersburg Community Revitalization Area (CRA) place-based grant program. The City of St. Petersburg helped the Speakers fill out the Commercial Site Improvement Grant, which provides matching grant funding up to $20,000 for improvements to commercial building exteriors within the historically blighted CRA.
The CRA was established to promote reinvestment in the 7.4 square-mile area, comprised of a historically African American section of St. Petersburg. Neighborhoods such as Childs Park, Campbell Park, Grand Central District, Midtown, two Florida Main Street Districts, among others. One of its main components is 22nd St. S, better known as the Deuces Live, the historic African American-owned business district.
Maria and Dorian Speaker quickly started planning. With the help of the City’s Economic Development Specialist Tony Chan, they put together a grant proposal. Their proposal included new windows and doors, a new fence, new James Hardie board siding, landscaping and a professional paint job.
A few months later, their grant was approved. The total cost of their renovations – about $40,000 – was fully matched by the City of St. Petersburg, to the allowed maximum of $20,000. Their business today is unrecognizable – and it has drastically changed the way the Speakers do business.
“When we had the place originally, no one ever came to the door,” said Maria. “No one ever knocked. Once we started making the change, we have people look us up on the internet and when they’re on their way to the bike trail, they’ll stop buy and get a quote.”
“It was weird to hear somebody knock on the door and ring the door bell,” Maria laughed. “To have people stop by on a bicycle, it was like this is so nice, our customers really want to come see us now.”
And the changes didn’t stop there. The Speakers had the city come out and clean the sewer, notorious for flooding. They emptied the alley filled with trash and hired local muralists The Vitale Brothers to paint the back wall of their building, as well as the full interior of their lot. Their murals range from the deep sea, to space to the jungle, and to Maria’s family village in Greece.
Maria had a larger business idea for the space, too. Her daughter, a vegetarian, often complained about the lack of fresh fruits and vegetables near the family business.
So, utilizing the newly landscaped exterior, Maria opened a produce stand on Jan. 12. Corner Garden Produce provides the neighborhood with locally sourced produce from Plant City and Ruskin farmers. It’s open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., 7 days a week.
“When the city called and said they’d like us to fix our property up,” she explained, “I said, ‘We’ve got to do something more. We’ve got to do more than sit inside all day and answer phones and emails.’ I can do that out here. I feel like this is good for the people.”
And Maria is right. The CRA is an area notoriously unable to support a grocery store. Walmart and SweetBay, in the same location, both shuttered within a few short years. Nothing has opened to fill the space since, and the area remains underserved when it comes to fresh food. Maria has even applied to accept EBT, or food stamps, from clients. Due to the government shutdown, she has not yet heard back about her application.
On the weekends, the Speakers’ son stands on Central Avenue and points passersby to the produce stand. “Slowly people come – and they don’t know we’re here,” said Maria. “They say, ‘We took another way home and we saw the flag, we’re so glad you’re here!'”
Business owners must submit grant applications to the City of St. Petersburg by Feb. 11. The final workshop for business owners takes place tonight at The Greenhouse.
South St. Petersburg CRA Place-based Grant Workshop
- February 6, 2019 (6-7:30 p.m.) The Greenhouse (City Hall Annex) 440 2nd Ave S.