Bullish on West Tampa, investor helps shape its future

Mike Braccia has been keeping his eye on West Tampa for a long time.

Now Braccia is part of a team of investors that is stepping into West Tampa to reinvigorate one of the neighborhood’s landmark buildings. Braccia is one of the principals of Bay Street Commercial, a South Tampa-based boutique brokerage that has handled transactions for properties all over the area. He says he’s been intrigued by the potential of West Tampa for years.

Recent developments have led Braccia to determine that the time is right to get involved in the area financially. His investment partnership, which is not part of Bay Street Commercial, is renovating a 9,200-square-foot, two-story building on West Main Street at Albany Albany.

“I’m bullish on West Tampa,” Braccia says.

The building, at 2100 N. Main St., is in the early stages of renovation. No tenants have been lined up yet, though Braccia says he’s had interest from several businesses. (The building is currently home to a Metro PCS store, which will be leaving.)

Plans call for four retail businesses to take the ground floor. The second floor is an open space, and the partners don’t have firm plans for that area yet.

“We’re not really sure what we’re going to do with the upstairs yet,” Braccia said. “We may divide it up into artists lofts or it could be office space. We’re focusing on the renovation right now.” Mike Braccia, co-owner of Main Street Property Holders

People who pay attention to West Tampa may recognize that configuration. It’s similar to what Elis-Van Pelt Furniture did in the old Santa Ella Cigar Factory at 1908 W. Armenia Ave. Ellis-Van Pelt operates out of the ground floor, and artists lease spaces upstairs.

The vision that Braccia and his partners have for the new building is of a multi-purpose gathering place with complementary businesses -- perhaps a bistro and some shops that will cater to the neighborhood and foster a sense of community, as well as draw people into West Tampa from surrounding parts of town.

Braccia said other developers in West Tampa are considering similar arrangements for the neighborhood's large old (and often historic) buildings. Mixed-use buildings that serve as centers for the community will be a key part of West Tampa's revitalization, Braccia says. The owner of one nearby building is considering establishing a community garden.

“Everybody’s trying to follow that Oxford Exchange model,” he says. Oxford Exchange, a renovated 18th-century building at 420 W. Kennedy Blvd. -- just outside West Tampa’s southern border -- includes a bookstore, a restaurant, a shared workplace and other entities.

Some of the business aspects that lead Braccia to think West Tampa’s time has arrived are actually occurring outside the borders of the neighborhood. “You have to have development on all sides,” he says. “You have that in West Tampa, with the West Shore Business District, South Tampa, and downtown.”

Even the more residential areas to the north of West Tampa are enjoying a renaissance. As prices for commercial and residential properties, go up and available properties become scarcer, business owners and homebuyers are looking outside the borders of those neighborhoods. That’s starting to lead them into West Tampa, he says.

But the neighborhood has plenty of intrinsic aspects that will help encourage commercial and residential revitalization, Braccia says. Proximity to business districts, land and buildings that are still extremely affordable compared to neighboring areas, and I-275 and other roads that bring virtually the entire Tampa Bay Area into easy reach are all part of what makes the neighborhood special. The architecture and the rich cultural history add extra appeal. Main Street building under renovation, home to future businesses in West Tampa.

Still, Braccia says, West Tampa still has a bad reputation among some long-time Tampa residents and business owners. That reputation is based on the area’s past more than its present or future.

“For a lot of years, not a lot of people would touch West Tampa,” he says.

But Braccia and his investment partners believe West Tampa’s time has come. That's partly because it’s one of the areas in the heart of Tampa ready to be revived, but also because West Tampa is full of distinctive brick buildings, including cigar factories that were essential to Tampa’s early history.

Even though work on the building is in its early stages, the partnership has plans to keep investing in West Tampa, especially along Main Street.

“Main Street is poised to become West Tampa’s downtown,” he says.

Braccia cautions, though, that while West Tampa’s revitalization might be noticeable and inevitable, it’s not yet fully underway. He compares West Tampa today to Ybor City about 30 years ago. There’s a lot of excitement about the future, but that prosperous future may still be a ways off. It may take some time to realize the neighborhood’s potential.

Braccia remains bullish about West Tampa as an early investor, and he thinks this is the right time for others to invest in the neighborhood.

But he says it is essential that he find the right investors for this and other ventures on Main Street.

“You have to have investors who are willing to wait for their money,” he says. “A lot of investors want to get their money back right away. That’s not going to happen at this point in West Tampa.”

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Read more articles by Marty Clear.

Marty Clear has been writing for various publications in the Tampa Bay area for more than 40 years, mostly covering the performing arts. He studied journalism at the University of South Florida and works nights at downtown Tampa’s legendary Hub bar. He goes to theater, dance and opera every chance he gets (in other words, any time he can afford it or he can cop a free ticket). He used to own a record store/ live music venue in Ybor City called Blue Chair. The first thing you may notice about him is that he’s 6’7”, and to answer your question, no, he doesn’t play basketball. He writes about West Tampa and other topics for 83 Degrees. Follow him on Twitter @martinclear.