ST. PETERSBURG — Shoppers can find an array of unusual and upscale items in downtown St. Petersburg:
Purses made in Italy of genuine crocodile skin. Hand-enameled jewelry and Russian nesting dolls. Stiletto heels, slinky cocktail dresses and original artwork.
Yet hardly anyone thinks of downtown as a shopping destination like, say, Tampa’s International Plaza or even Hyde Park Village. "This is a restaurant and bar town," says L.A. Newsome, who recently opened the NautiGirl beachwear store in St. Petersburg’s downtown core.
Could the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce do more to help the retail scene? Some think it could — by moving.
The chamber sits in what has become a prime downtown location, two blocks from the waterfront and directly across from the Sundial entertainment and dining complex. The organization is one of four owners of the building it occupies, and two of the other owners say it’s time to sell and allow redevelopment that could draw more shoppers to the area and make downtown a true shopping mecca.
"It could be so much better used for retail density," says attorney Rebecca Irving, one of the building’s owners.
I. Neil Irwin, another owner, says that despite a massive renovation of Sundial, some stores there still struggle — in the past few weeks, four have closed including the Tracy Negoshian dress shop and the Juxtapose home decor boutique.
"Sundial and the small business owners that are its tenants should not be allowed to sit there as the only retail complex," Irwin said. "It needs help from its neighbors."
The chamber, which owns a 24 percent share of its building at 100 Second Avenue N, has looked into the issue of relocating but is noncommittal.
The building "is one of our larger assets so we are always monitoring how to maintain it and what our options in the future are," said Chris Steinocher, the chamber’s president and CEO. "At this point it’s not for sale and we haven’t moved any further than that."
The Mediterranean-style building with "St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce" writ large over the entrance is on the site of an old hotel gutted by fire in the 1980s and rebuilt. The chamber moved in at a time when downtown was relatively moribund.
Irwin’s father, who bought and renovated the building, "made sure the chamber had a space, he condo-ed it out and gave them a good deal so they could finance it," Irwin said. "That’s when the chamber needed to be in that part of the city because it was pioneering at the time."
In 2000, what was then called Baywalk (now Sundial) opened across the street with restaurants, shops and a movie theater.
"It was a very electric, exciting time to be there," said Irving, the attorney whose offices were in the chamber building at the time. "We thought there was going to be so much development happening and we’d be right in the middle of the vibrancy that was going on."
But BayWalk struggled to keep tenants and attract customers, many of whom were scared away by large, unruly groups of youths. Entrepreneur Bill Edwards bought the ailing complex for $5.2 million in 2011 and spent nearly $30 million on the plaza, which included tearing down walls to open it up along Second Avenue N and bringing in a mix of local and national retailers like Chico’s and Tommy Bahama.
Irwin and others think more shoppers would flock to the area if the chamber building were replaced by an office or residential tower with stores on the ground floor. That would help not only Sundial but other retailers in the vicinity like Uniquely Yours, a clothing and jewelry shop that has been in business three years.
"I really have to work to keep it going," said owner Yvon Xantos, originally from Australia. "A lot of people don’t think of coming downtown to shop; they’re coming for the bars and restaurants."
In a 2013, before Baywalk’s rebirth as Sundial, the Urban Land Institute did a study of ways St. Petersburg could better connect its waterfront to the rest of downtown. The study anticipated that downtown’s retail scene would spread west along Central Avenue and Second Avenue N, where the chamber of commerce is located.
"At the time as I recall, most of activity was right on Beach (Drive) and hadn’t really turned the corner both literally and figuratively," said Jim Cloar, past chairman of the institute’s Tampa Bay chapter. "To the degree that cities can activate their ground floor space that faces the sidewalk, so much the better to keep the vitality coming.
In line with the study’s predictions, Irwin recently redeveloped part of the block hemmed by Second Avenue N and Second Street, formerly home to a Re/Max real estate office. Several small businesses have moved in, including NautiGirl, which sells bikinis and board shorts.
"There was nothing downtown that carried youthful beachwear," said Newsome, who owns the shop with husband Jon. "We thought (the store) would be unique and serve a different group.’’
After a strong start, business has slowed, first because of an unusually hot summer, then the Red Tide that kept many tourists away. And even though NautiGirl is across the street from Sundial, which the Newsomes hoped would generate traffic for them, most downtown shoppers hop on the trolley that stops near Sundial, ride past their store and head straight for the bars and restaurants.
Two doors down from NautiGirl is the J9 Shoe Salon. Owner Janine Mahomed said her store also had a "very rough summer" although she thinks the larger problem is that retail gets overlooked in what is largely a drinking and dining scene.
"I’m a big foodie. I follow the foodie groups, but there’s not a lot of exposure for us," she said of the downtown shops. "Of the people that do stumble on the store, I’ve had a lot of repeat business."
Whether redeveloping the chamber of commerce site would help Mahomed and other retailers is up for debate.
"Of course there should be more retail downtown and there will be," said Edwards, who remade BayWalk into Sundial. "But I don’t now whether (replacing) the chamber is going to make a big difference. It’s a small piece of property as far as the retail business goes."
Edwards insists that Sundial is doing fine by itself, saying sales have increased at the majority of stores while those that have closed will soon be replaced by others, including a Lilly Pulitzer boutique.
"It has nothing do with the shopping center," Edwards said of the closings. "It has to do with the owners’ business acumen." (He sued the Tracy Neghosian store, alleging it hadn’t paid rent in a year. Negoshian, a Belleair resident who still has stores in Naples and Sarasota, did not return a call for comment. )
In its building, the chamber of commerce has its own small store that generates some income from the sale of T-shirts, postcards and items made by local artisans. Irwin estimates the building could bring $15 million because of its land value if all four owners, which include Hancock Bank, agree to sell. The chamber could move elsewhere and still have plenty of money left, he said.
"They were not supposed to be in the urban core forever, the most dense part," Irwin said of the chamber. "They were supposed to be a placeholder for when the development market came knocking. They would be the first ones to lead a sale, profit, have a permanent endowment and allow that specific neighborhood to become a prosperous retail-walking-fun zone complementing Beach Drive and now the new Pier."
The chamber, though, doesn’t seem eager to sell.
"We are in the middle of a really heated commercial cycle," said Steinocher, the chamber president. "I’m sure a lot of people are interested in opportunities and we’re keeping our mind open. But we have a location where people know where we are, a lot of visitors come in and now residents do, too."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate