Want to attract artists, creatives to your town? Transform a neighborhood

Busy Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park is not where you would expect to find a “Creative District.” 

But past the heavy traffic and the older retail shops and restaurants, slow down and you’ll see Clayton Swartz’s colorful abstract metal sculptures at the 5600 Block. 

The sculptures are strategically placed to draw attention to Swartz’s new art gallery. But they also designate the entry point to a new concept for Pinellas Park -- an emerging “Pinellas Arts Village.”  

This is an urban renewal project with a creative twist, with a goal of turning around a former blighted Community Redevelopment Area.

“The 5600 block is part of the historic core of downtown Pinellas Park and the train station, but it was overlooked in some of the redevelopment that has taken place in other parts of the city,” says Debra Rose, Library and Cultural Affairs Administrator for the City of Pinellas Park

Rehabbing and rebuilding

A few years ago, the city began buying up some of the storefronts in the 5600 and 5700 block, rehabbing them and putting in a parking lot to give the newly remodeled shops rear entry in the alley behind Park Boulevard.

The city then turned to its attention to a quaint, run-down neighborhood just behind the storefronts. Called the United Cottages, this was a rag-tag collection of tiny cottage homes built in the 1940s and ‘50s for retirees and tourists. Until recently, 75th Terrace, the street that runs in front of the cottages wasn’t even paved.

The city rezoned the area as a mixed-use live-work district, demolished the cottages that were beyond repair, and began making infrastructure improvements, including street upgrades with brick pavers, curbs and decorative street lighting. A fenced-in community garden, dubbed gARTen was added.

Last year, the city co-hosted what Rose calls a Better Block Project, inviting Pinellas Park residents to walk the area and envision what they might want to see develop there.

“We set up a pop-up arts district with a stage for entertainment,” says Rose. “Since then everything has taken off rapidly.”

In the spring, the city launched a monthly 4th Saturday Art Walk to draw attention to the artists moving in and to encourage additional community investment in the area.  

“The community has been extraordinarily enthusiastic; the magnitude of response surprised me,” says Rose.  “Everyone loves having a monthly art walk where you can park your car and get out and walk around, talk with artists and rub shoulders with other people in the community.”

Meet the artists

Three years ago Vince Pompei was the first artist to move, when the concept of an arts village was still just a dream.

At first, everyone told me I was crazy to move in here,” says Pompei. “But I liked what the city was trying to do and I thought it had a chance to be successful.”

A metal sculptor, Pompei’s studio is a rambling two-story building in the 5600 Block of Park Boulevard. It’s filled with wildly imaginative sculptures made from rusted bicycle chains, tarnished flatware, kitchen pots, and other discarded pieces of metal. 

Outside, like sentry guarding his studio, Pomepi has placed the Trojan horse, a sculpture made out of an old empty water tank and an oil tank. A gigantic spider web hangs from the balcony. Upstairs in the second floor gallery, more of the same type of whimsical art fills the shelves and floor space.  

Pompei say he likes to take things that others see as not valuable and use his imagination to make fun, crazy “Alice-in-Wonderland art.”

The arts district has come a long way in the time that he’s been there, he says. “People are excited about what’s happening here,” he says. 

This fall, Derek Donnelly will be moving in to what could certainly be called an attention grabber. He’s renting the collection of shipping containers that the city has commissioned a design firm and contractor to reassemble into a cool, modern-looking building. A gallery and studio will be on the first floor and a two-bedroom apartment on top.

A well-known St. Petersburg mural artist, Donnelly is also the curator and founder of the Saint Paint collective and the nonprofit Public Art Project.

When he first learned that the city was looking for an artist to move into the container, Donnelly says he wasn’t so sure that it would work for him. He was excited about the idea of an arts district, but wasn’t all that keen on having a retail showroom – he had already done that in the past in St. Petersburg’s 600 Block Crislip Arcade.

But when he went to take a look at the project, he changed his mind.
“Debra (Rose) and I walked around and I saw infinite potential. I talked it over with a couple of other artists and decided it was probably a good idea to take advantage of the situation being offered,” says Donnelly.  

He expects the gallery will create opportunities for other local artists to exhibit their work. And he’s very positive about the district’s future.  

“Pinellas Park is really invested in the area and listening to what creative professionals have to say about how it is developing,” says Donnelly.

For Donnelly it’s like coming home. He grew up in Pinellas Park and attended the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School. In 2010 he launched his art career and since then has done dozens of murals in the greater St. Petersburg area.

Art Studios at 5663

One of the murals that Donnelly has worked on in the last year covers the entire side of the building that houses the Studios at 5663, 10 small affordable artist studios the city created for the new arts village. The mural showcases the work not only of Donnelly, but also other well-known St. Petersburg muralists of Sebastian Coolidge, Scott Hillis, James Oleson, Zulu Painter and Justin Wagher

Inside the Studios at 5663, Bob Canning is busy painting brightly colored turtles, a slightly different direction from his long-standing reputation as a premier western artist. Canning and his wife came to Tampa Bay a few years ago after decades in Durango, CO.  

Last year, when he decided to relocate his studio from the beach to somewhere closer to Clearwater, Canning considered moving into the back of a motorcycle shop not far away from where he is now. But then his wife saw an article in a local newspaper about the city’s new artist studios.

“They were looking for working artists and that’s me,” says Canning.  “It’s a new experience for me working in a situation where there are multiple artist studios on site, but I love it. I’m here working every day and I’ve sold a lot of my art at the monthly Art Walks.”

Pinellas Park entrepreneurs

Not everyone is an artist in the new creative district. There’s also a tiny indie bookstore and a bake shop. Both small businesses occupy the little cottage homes in the United Cottage neighborhood -- but these are cottages that the city rebuilt from the foundation up. They’re vintage-looking, but thoroughly up-to-date.

Tiffany Razzano of Wordier Than Thou and her two cats live in one of the cottages. Upstairs is her bedroom. Downstairs is a multi-tasking space that doubles as her living room, a small independent bookstore with a focus on Florida authors, a literary press and event space, and a resource for storytelling and writing.   

“I am a creative person, not a business person and I have to give kudos to Debra and the city for making everything so easy and accessible. It’s so much fun that I feel I should not even be allowed to be living life like this,” says Razzano, who is also the editor of Seminole Beacon and Pinellas Park Beacon newspapers, and recently began writing feature stories for 83 Degrees.  

Artisan cupcakes, chocolates, cakes, pies and even pepperoni bread fill the case at the Complete Sweet Shoppe, owned and operated by sisters Rosemary Bernard and Del Simpson. They don’t live on site, but use the first floor of the cottage for the bakery. They contract with an offsite commercial kitchen to create their baked goods.

The sisters had a catering business previously, but this is their first venture into a bake shop.  

“We saw a an ad in the paper about the city offering little business incubator space and we fell in love with the cottage when we saw it,” says Simpson. “We’ve been here since September of last year and it’s been great.”

What’s next for the district?  

“It’s been a learning experience,” says Rose. “We are generating all kinds of new ideas that would not have entered the conversation with input from the artists who are moving in.”

She says the city is now in the process of zoning the area as an arts district. But one thing is certain, she says. “We’re definitely trying to ensure there are affordable spaces for the creative community that are sustainable over the long-term.”

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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