St. Petersburg is a city of the arts – residents, politicians, and Visit St. Pete/Clearwater advertisements will proudly tell you so. The city boasts the first and only museum in the southeast to secure a three-star Michelin rating – The Dali. It is the rising epicenter of the American Studio Glass movement, home to the Chihuly Collection and the Imagine Museum, along with dozens of working glass artists. It has the Florida Orchestra, St. Pete Opera, multiple theater troupes and acclaimed muralists whose work enlivens the walls of Central Avenue and beyond.
But John Collins, executive director of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, has long been envisioning much more than museums and murals for St. Pete’s thriving arts community. So long, in fact, he had a name for it – the Arts Resource Center. The basic services of the conceptualized resource center would be answers to many of the pain points of the arts community. The idea sat for years as just that – an idea. Until now.
It came to urgent fruition thanks to the Tropicana Field site redevelopment plan. When the City of St. Petersburg announced that they would be moving forward with planning Scenario 2, without the Rays’ stadium in play, St. Petersburg Arts Alliance board member Paul Carder seized the opportunity to build out a substantial plan and pitch it to the city.
“I think the thing that really triggered this current proposal is the availability of the 20 acres that had been originally allocated for the Rays and the stadium,” said Carder. “So that set up a plan B for them and I just came to the board and said ‘Hey, what if we got a spot in the Trop site and did something more ambitious.'”
Ambitious is right. The Cultural Arts Center plan calls for 100,000 square feet of space, divvied up between a 400-seat theatre, dance space, gallery, incubator and academy. The city thus far seems optimistic, and has included the Cultural Arts Center in the initial planning of the site. It was also mentioned at the recent community meeting.
All of the proposed amenities of the Cultural Arts Center would be solving problems that the Arts Alliance has been seeing for years in its capacity as the “front door” to the city – a chamber of sorts – for arts businesses:
A 400-seat theatre for the many performing arts organizations in need of a mid-size theater. American Stage and freeFall theatre seat less than 150 people. The next largest theatre is the Palladium, which seats 830. The Mahaffey and the Palladium are too large and expensive for these small theater companies whose shows outgrow their small venues.
A dance space, because the only vaulted floor in St. Petersburg is located on a top floor of the Shuffleboard Club (currently closed for renovations).
An incubator with office space to help businesses move into the community and grow. “We get calls weekly, if not every other day – ‘We’re moving to St. Pete where can we get a studio,'” said Collins. They have found that even in the Warehouse Arts District, there is simply not enough office space for arts businesses and nonprofit organizations. And the Arts Xchange, housed in the Warehouse Arts District, simply can’t keep up. According to Collins, the organization has a waiting list 300 names long.
The Arts Alliance has also already acted as a defacto arts incubator, launching 5+ nonprofits over the last five years, including fiscal sponsorship of Et Cultura, support of the SunLit festival and the Public Arts Project, among others.
An academy, because the Arts Business Academy classes that Collins teaches at the St. Pete Greenhouse 12 times a year are so popular that all but two completely sold out last year. And, despite flourishing after-school programs like the Arts Conservatory for Teens (ACT), there is no formal space for after-school arts education, only rooms and spaces cobbled together when available.
It’s not just the needs of the arts community that Collins and Carder are concerned with, but the needs of the city as a whole. To be a successful redevelopment plan, the redeveloped area must have a magnetizing factor.
“The original plan – its vision – was really tied in to having major league baseball on the site, which would help connect it to downtown but also provide the kind of stimulus for entertainment, for restaurants, for office space, for parking – all kinds of things,” said Carder.
“Without that there, what we’ve said is that we think the cultural arts center, if done the way we’re talking about, and probably in reality combined with a conference center, a hotel, has that animating power that baseball has.”
“It’s the kind of thing that really can drive jobs, tourism, money in the community … Can support the restaurants around it, attract meetings at the conference center, occupancy at the hotel.”
Governmental support on the city and county level will be paramount for getting the cultural arts center included in the plans for the Gas Plant District, as the site may be known when Tropicana Field is gone.
“Timing,” Carder said, “is also critical with this stuff. If we would have come forward with this 10 years ago, they would have laughed at us. But now, I think there is both at the city level and the county level, a genuine belief that the arts are a good thing beyond just quality of life. That there is a significant economic impact of the arts in Pinellas, and certainly St. Pete.”
The Tropicana Field redevelopment plan for scenario two is scheduled to be completed Oct. 1. Click on the Catalyst for future updates on the inclusion of the Cultural Arts Center in the upcoming plans.