Rise of creatives in West Tampa neighborhoods

Ask Lynn Marvin Dingfelder why she and her partner Larry Wiezycki chose West Tampa as the home for their new business, and she’s likely to answer with a familiar real estate catchphrase.

“Location, location, and location,” she’ll tell you.

But she doesn’t mean it in the conventional sense. Sure, she says, West Tampa has all the geographical benefits that business people desire, including its central location, a quick and easy drive from downtown, the West Shore Business District and Tampa International Airport.

And it doesn’t hurt that there lots of great places to eat.

But what appeals most to Dingfelder and Wiezycki are the more abstract qualities of the neighborhood.

“We’re all about holding on to history,” she says.

Larry Wiezycki, filmmaker and co-founder of Creative on Main Street, an Emmy Award-Winning film making team based in West Tampa.Dingfelder and Wiezycki are Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmakers who specialize in chronicling Florida’s history and heritage. They won their Emmy four years ago for their film “JFK in Tampa: The 50th Anniversary,” which has since been archived in the Library of Congress. 

Their most recently completed work is “The Goody Goody: Past, Present and Future,” a look at the iconic Tampa eatery that served up its famous burgers and special sauce in downtown Tampa from 1925 to 2005 and just celebrated its second anniversary in Hyde Park Village. Goody Goody also operates a cafe at Tampa International Airport.

The premiere screening played to a near-capacity audience at Tampa Theatre on Aug. 18. Follow this link for a trailer for the video.

Dingfelder and Wiezycki have collaborated for years, but it was just a few years back that they bought a building in West Tampa and started a company called Creative on Main Street. Decades ago, the 3,000-square-foot building was home to an auto repair shop called M&A.

Dingfelder and Wiezycki spent a couple of years converting it into offices and production studios. They uncovered brick walls and gorgeous ceilings that previous occupants, more attuned to practicality than aesthetics, had overlooked or ignored. They outfitted their building with light fixtures salvaged from the old Belleview Biltmore Hotel in Pinellas County.

The latest and most high-tech video equipment shares the space with antiquated but refurbished 16-mm. movie projectors that they use to screen loaned or donated footage. They're now in the middle of producing a documentary about the glory days of professional wrestling in Florida, and one projector is loaded with a film of Dusty Rhodes wrestling and talking about his career. 

Dingfelder and Wiezycki are part of an arts community that has been quietly establishing itself in West Tampa in recent years. Although West Tampa hasn’t become known as an arts destination, it’s gradually been attracting artists in all disciplines who come to work and live. Larry Wiezycki, filmmaker, and Lynn Marvin Dingfelder, exec., producer and writer, both founders of Creative on Main Street in West Tampa.

The presence of artists

Perhaps the epicenter of the arts in the neighborhood is a collective of a dozen or so artists with studios on the second floor of the historic Santaella Cigar factory on Armenia Avenue. When an office furniture company called Ellis-Van Pelt bought the building about 15 years ago and moved into the first floor, the company’s owners actively sought out artists to rent the upstairs spaces. They thought to have artists there would be a great thing for West Tampa. Artists flocked in, attracted by the large spaces and affordable rents, and undeterred by the unsavory reputation the neighborhood then had. The result: Santaella Studios for the Arts.

The presence of artists and their creative work was one of several factors that started to turn the neighborhood’s reputation around. Real estate prices remained low, and that attracted even more artists.

Among them were JP Parra and his wife Vanessa. They were young artists -- he just out of college and she with a nascent career as a muralist -- and they were looking for an affordable neighborhood to live in, just for a while. They decided on West Tampa for no other reason than economics.

“We were artists straight out of college and looking for something to do,” Parra says. “We knew we were going to want to have kids. We figured we’d stay in West Tampa for five years, and then we’d look around for a place to raise a family. Vanessa grew up in Land O’Lakes and I grew up in Seminole Heights, in Wellswood, and I suppose West Tampa has something of a reputation.”

They moved into the neighborhood 12 years ago, and soon realized they loved West Tampa as a place to work and to create art, and together they built a company called Customize Artistic Painting at 2116 W. Lemon St., near their home. Signs and large-scale paintings created by the Parras are all over Tampa and throughout Florida. West Tampa’s location, so close to the interstate system, allowed them to get to their scattered job sites easily, no matter where they were.

After they settled in, they started to discover the burgeoning community of artists in West Tampa.
The more the Parras got to know the neighborhood, the more they loved what they saw. It was a neighborhood with rich architecture, deep history and lots of different kinds of people. It was a neighborhood that placed a lot of value on families, and it wasn’t unusual to find several generations of one family living in homes on the same block.

When the time came to find the best place to raise their kids, the Parras decided they were already living there.

“We looked around and we said, ‘You know what? We’re not going to find any place better than this’,” Parra says.

The neighborhood is changing more rapidly in recent years, Parra says. The prices for new homes on his block, that block where a couple of starving artists bought a home just over a decade ago, are now beyond anything he ever imagined he’d see in West Tampa.

What’s next in West Tampa?

Call it gentrification or neighborhood improvement, but Parra and some other West Tampa artists can’t help but wonder if real estate prices might start discouraging artists and other creatives who earn lower incomes from moving in and/or staying.

There’s some anecdotal evidence that says they’re right. Ellis-Van Pelt sold the Santaella building earlier this year, and the new owners are making extensive renovations.

The downstairs is vacant for the moment, and some of the artists on the second floor have already moved out -- some to other spaces in West Tampa, some to other parts of the Tampa Bay area -- anticipating that their rents will go up.

Others have stayed, but they say they’re a little worried about what might happen in the near future, once the new renovations are completed. They haven’t heard what the new owners plan to do with the upstairs.
But Dingfelder is still bullish on West Tampa as a center for the arts. Lynn Marvin Dingfelder, exec., producer and co-founder of Creative on Main Street in West Tampa.

People who say that the arts are not part of West Tampa’s future, she says, are only seeing a small part of the picture.

“What they’re saying is, prices have gone up,” she says. “But you know what? They’ve gone up everywhere Prices are higher than they were five years ago, yes. But if you get in now, it will be cheaper than it will be in six months. To me, that just means that West Tampa is a happening place.”

West Tampa is still more affordable than many other neighborhoods in the city, she says, and it still has all the tangible and intangible assets that have made West Tampa a magnet for working artists for the past couple of decades. There are a variety of spaces, from intimate to very large. And there are still plenty of buildings that can be purchased for affordable prices, and the history, architecture, and diversity of West Tampa make it an inspiring place for creative people. There are still buildings like the old auto repair place that Creative on Main now occupies that can be purchased and renovated.

Best of all, she says, West Tampa still values its artists. In some other neighborhoods that have become home to artistic communities, the artists have been brushed aside once money starts coming in. That isn’t happening in West Tampa.

“People could not have been more welcoming,” Dingfelder says. “In so many places, you have to fight for zoning, you have to fight for renovations. That’s not the case here. The [West Tampa] Chamber of Commerce has been so welcoming, the neighborhood has been so welcoming. They want creatives here. It’s really been terrific.

“I can tell you if you’re an artist, West Tampa is a groovy place to be.”

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.