Feeling Good Vibes On Beach Drive In St. Petersburg

Paul Bailey grew up about three or four blocks from downtown St. Petersburg. Both he and his wife Joan graduated from St. Petersburg High in 1973.

They live close enough to Beach Drive that they often walk from their house, along the row of specialty shops and sidewalk cafes. They stop at the gelato shop, enjoying the Italian ice cream.

"Who doesn't?" says Paul, with appreciation for living, working and playing in one of the Tampa Bay region's coolest places.

Beach Drive is a waterfront, tree-lined pathway connecting the famous Renaissance Vinoy Hotel on the north end of downtown St. Petersburg to the Mahaffey Theater and The Dali Museum to the south. Businesses along the street include an eclectic mix of higher-end condos, funky retail shops and tiny art galleries.

For a couple of months now, the Baileys have been key investors in the always-busy row of niche shops that populate the neighborhood.

They run the Savory Spice Shop at 400 Beach Drive, only a few storefronts away from the Morean Arts Center's Chihuly Collection on the corner.

The Baileys first heard about Savory Spice from their daughter, who lives in Denver, CO. She lives near a spice shop, so every time her parents visited, they brought back "suitcases full of spices," Paul says. In 2009, the Savory Spice company offered franchises, and a handful of stores around the country opened within a three-week period. When Paul and Joan heard about this, they were drawn to the idea of running one of those stores.

They soon invested $35,000 for the Savory Spice Shop franchise fee, and hired three fulltime employees and one part-time employee (plus they get help from relatives who help out over the weekend). 

"We loved the product," he says, "and we thought St. Petersburg was ready for a spice shop."

So Why Beach Drive?

The pair knew they wanted their store to be located in downtown St. Petersburg, where both had worked for most of their lives. Paul helped organize and open Signature Bank (now Whitney Bank) in downtown St. Petersburg, and worked there for 26 years. Joan owns 80-year-old Hill's Travel Service on Fourth Street. They looked at other locations, such as Central Avenue, to set up a Savory Spice, but always ended up back at Beach Drive -- the first place they looked.

"Just look outside," Paul says, gesturing beyond a wall of spices to the outdoors.

Across the street, a huge tree with knotted roots and climb-worthy branches attracts passersby of all ages. Beyond the tree, Straub Park, a sprawling grassy area, gives way to the Central Yacht Basin.

The crowds on Beach Drive often come from Straub Park, one of many waterfront parks that attract more than 10 million visitors to more than 1,000 events each year. In the past year, Straub Park has hosted outdoor concerts, movie screenings and a centennial parks celebration.

Park visitors simply walk across Beach Drive to shop and dine.

Bringing The Outdoors Indoors

The core six-to-eight block stretch of Beach Drive seems constantly busy. On one of those perfect winter weather weekends in St. Petersburg, the kind that requires a light sweater but welcomes warm swaths of sunshine, the sidewalks in front of shops like Gatsby's, The Hooker Tea Company, The Moon Under Water and Paciugo Gelato and Caffe are full of pedestrians.

The Sunday brunch crowd -- young professionals, families with little children, boomers and retirees -- fills the tables at Parkshore Grill and Cassis American Brasserie by late morning, and they stay full throughout the day. Sprinkled in the mix are groups of men wearing hats and vests who speak passionately in non-English languages while gesticulating to each other for emphasis. Strollers are scattered among the wrought iron tables, while bicycles are propped up against lampposts. Dogs on leashes curl up next to their owners' feet.

Hooker Tea, which opened in 2006, sells loose tea by the ounce in addition to serving prepared teas and other drinks. Several people sitting outside of the tea shop say they come to this part of Beach Drive specifically for Hooker Tea, because it's like to tea lovers what Starbucks is to coffee lovers.

Fallon Buckley, who has worked at Hooker Tea for about a year and a half, says the store is busy year-round. The tea shop also participates in Groupon (as does Savory Spice), a website that offers deals at local businesses; Buckley says the gimmick brings in a huge flood of business. She adds that the store draws a good mix of residents and tourists, mostly from nearby arts and outdoors venues, as well as bicycle riders who ride long distances on paths through St. Petersburg then stop in for a drink.

Allan Abrams, owner of Trinity Gallery at 214 Beach Drive, says the downtown St. Petersburg has a "real nice feel." He is quick to point out, however, that a number of businesses have come and gone along Beach Drive over the years. Visitors consistently return for the neighborhood's beauty and laid-back vibe, he says.

He highlights the differences between Beach Drive and BayWalk, which sits on Second Avenue off of Beach Drive. He contends the decision to build BayWalk was not a good one, and thinks the expensive and generic shops there keep customers away.

The city of St. Petersburg recognizes the area of Beach Drive between First Avenue South and Fifth Avenue North as an Enterprise Zone, which is part of Florida's Enterprise Zone Program. The program provides tax credits for job creation and investment in building materials and business equipment.

Sophia Sorolis, the city's economic development manager, says her department assists with making the program known to businesses, and works with them to help claim the credits.

The department recently developed an incentive wizard program designed to make determining business' eligibility for incentives much easier, Sorolis says. The tool was created based on feedback from local business owners, community representatives and elected officials who serve on the Enterprise Zone's governing body.

Creating A Sense Of Place

Jordan Stovall, a Hooker Tea employee and St. Petersburg local, says Beach Drive ranks as one of the most "awesome" places in the city. He especially likes spending time here because of the sense of community he feels, including a friendly vibe between the workers and the customers.

At the shop, they try to encourage a sense of community with a bulletin board that contains announcements for participatory activities such as local exercise classes and live music performances. There are board games on the tables, and Stovall says he and his co-workers often make friends with the regulars.

"We even got some holiday cards from them this year," he says fondly.

Lately, Beach Drive has attracted tourists and locals to its growing arts scene -- more than 25 art galleries, seven major museums and five performing arts venues. Paul Bailey says a large portion of his business at Savory Spice has come from the nearby Dale Chihuly blown glass art collection. Heading south, there's also the Museum of Fine Arts, the Mahaffey Theater and the new Dali museum, which opened January 11.

Robert Danielson, assistant director of marketing and communications for the city of St. Petersburg, says Beach Drive has emerged as a destination spot.

"It can now compete with some of the world's most beautiful promenades, be it Cannes' La Croisette, or Barcelona's Las Ramblas," he says. "Whether it's gelato, stone crab claws, a grilled porterhouse or a nice hot herbal tea, there's a wonderful selection of food, waterfront vistas and great art museums along Beach Drive."

Michelle Stark, a freelance writer who is a newspaper/magazine junkie and a caffeine fiend, frequents Tampa's indie clubs/concerts and does Pilates. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.