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The Factory St. Pete pivots into a new reality

Bill DeYoung



Kara Behar, part owner of The Factory St. Pete, in 2019. Photos by Bill DeYoung

When it was announced in 2019, The Factory St. Pete seemed like an ambitious undertaking: Eight converted factory buildings and warehouses on 6.5 acres, 91,000 square feet redesigned and refurbished into a center for the arts, the arts business and the ever-expanding arts-making community.

And although Covid has taken a serious bite out of the apple, The Factory is still a going concern, according to co-owner Kara Behar. It’s just that circumstances have forced Behar and the others to “Pivot, change, pivot, change. Bob and weave. You just shift. As the world changes, you change.”

Saturday’s “First Look” event invites the public inside the two buildings that are currently open for business (the others are considered “construction sites” and will be off-limits).

Keep St. Pete Local’s “Markers Market,” in the 2622 Fairfield Ave. South parking lot and inside one of the buildings, will feature 40 local vendors, with each table spaced 10 feet apart for safety. Live music is planned. And food trucks. And artist demos inside.

And, hopefully, a contagious sense of optimism for the future.

Back in March, “We were ready to break ground, and then loans all froze,” explains Behar, executive director of Behar + Peteranecz Architecture. “So we pulled all our resources together, and we’re doing two-thirds of our buildout for half the budget. But we’re doing it.”

Several of the businesses that had committed to The Factory were forced to back out – for the time being. “It was a mix,” Behar explains. “You can’t do performances, so you don’t need rehearsal space. Classes are down because you can’t do ballet classes. Restaurants and breweries – everyone’s like ‘Dibs when we come back, but we’re not going to invest in a brewery when no one can come and drink.’

“It all shifted, and then we didn’t have the budget to build out some of the original design, so then we shifted on that front.”

Grounded Gallery (with Sam Doty, left, and Hao Penghe) has already opened inside The Factory.

So there will definitely be a Factory – it just won’t be the Factory that Behar, her architect husband Jordan or the other investors and participants originally envisioned.

And Kara Behar is perfectly all right with that.

First and foremost, the large-scale immersive arts facility Fairgrounds is still the anchor tenant (“like your Saks Fifth Avenue in the mall,” jokes Behar) and is still on track to open in the spring.

Keep St. Pete Lit and the St. Petersburg Arts Association’s SHINE Mural Festival have already moved into their second-floor offices. Daddy Kool Records will be relocating to The Factory when Fairgrounds debuts.

“So we still have all the core pieces,” she explains. “Did we lose classroom space, and shift to outdoor classroom space? Yeah, but that’s the pivot that everybody’s doing right now.”

This landscaped, socially-distanced outdoor area has been designed for classes, readings and small gatherings.

The neatly landscaped outdoor space will officially be dedicated during Saturday’s event, as Keep St. Pete Lit’s children’s reading garden. Other classes are already being booked there.

“The benefit for us on Saturday is to start pre-leasing some of the artist spaces,” Behar says. “Instead of people leasing 1,000 square feet, they’re saying ‘You know, I’m good with 200 or 400 square feet.’ And we can do that. We’re just pivoting with that.”

Pivot, shift, bob, weave.

The Behars’ furniture budget went from $100,000 to $8,000. Kara subsequent bought 180 pieces of furniture – café tables, chairs and desks – at auction when New York’s brand-new Hudson Yards Neiman Marcus store closed a couple of months ago.

“Think about all the great art, all the great music that comes out of adversity,” she says. “Because when you’re well-fed, and you’ve got a ton of money, your art because kind of dull. So now, we’re coming out of adversity with basically zero funding and pinching pennies. Which is why I’m so excited about the Neiman Marcus auction.”

Similar episodes of necessary re-thinking – shrinking funds being the mother of invention, after all – have led to what can best be described as The Factory 2.0.

“We have the plans, we have the players. We’re starting to buy up brewery equipment, as breweries go bankrupt. Because now’s the better time to buy it. And we’ll be ready when it makes sense to build it out again.”

Bob, weave, shift, pivot.

“We did this all ourselves – basically painting and installing ceiling tiles,” explains Behar. “We hired out-of-work musicians. And now three of them are working for us pretty much full time.”

It’s taking on a funky, organic look and feel. “Especially with Jordan being an architect, you come at it with these big plans, and these big budgets, and it’s like ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’

“And then you’re like ‘OK, let’s keep it more original.’”

Today, she adds, “It’s much more of a re-purposed factory, so we have diamond plate flooring instead of brand-new marble. It’s OK, it works. Instead of ripping out this ceiling and bringing everything up to the top, we’ve left a lot of it. It’s a good solution. I like it.”

Info on The Factory First Look is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 12 11 a.m. through 5 p.m. (Makers Market) and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. (live music and celebration) at 2622 Fairfield Ave. South, in the Warehouse Arts District. Admission is free.


















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