PINELLAS PARK — A dying strip center that had been slipping into disrepair has come back to life this year with about a dozen entrepreneurs who have joined the city’s new incubator program.
The group of computer programmers, landscape designers and even a massage therapist enjoy cheap rent from their landlord, the city of Pinellas Park, at around $150 a month for offices in the busy 5600 block of Park Boulevard.
The city has invested more than $1 million to turn these old storefronts into an incubator, where startup businesses can collaborate with one another and get in-house mentorship from faculty at St. Petersburg College.
A few years down the road, when they start turning a solid profit, the hope is they’ll move out and become a long-term part of the city’s small-business community.
“We hope since the city helped them get going, that’s the first place they look when they get ready to move,” said Shannon Coughlin, of the city’s community development department.
Most of the new businesses are housed in a collection of 10 office suites on the west end of the strip center, offering everything from marketing services to bilingual business education videos.
During the course of a year, city leaders bought up eight lots on the north side of Park Boulevard, all except a chiropractic office, the Bottles Pub and City Councilman Rick Butler’s real estate office.
The city also purchased several lots in the United Cottages development behind the district, building two-story homes on two parcels for businesses.
A former homeless shelter in the middle of the Park Boulevard business center is still being renovated as well as a large storefront on the eastern end that could be used for a café or eatery.
There’s a new vintage-style marquee for the Pinellas Park Office Suites atop the otherwise nondescript building to get the attention of motorists speeding by.
While this city of 49,000 people maintains the largest industrial land base in the county, with major employers such as Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, it lacks a strong downtown core where smaller merchants can compete with large grocers and big-box retailers.
The older commercial buildings on this stretch of Park Boulevard have been targeted by the city as part of a Community Redevelopment Area, where increases in property taxes can be used to reinvest in landscaping, infrastructure and other projects to enhance the district.
The incubator concept was driven by a need to give cash-strapped businesspeople a head start in a slow economy.
In addition to free utilities, wireless Internet and a private conference room, tenants get on-site mentorship from St. Petersburg College entrepreneurship professor Nicolle Panuthos, who keeps office hours here twice a week.
Simply working side by side with like-minded people also is energizing, says Ricardo Colon, who develops Spanish-language training videos on business and technology topics.
“When you have people that relate to you, it definitely helps you crank up the energy level, and that’s what this does for me, at a very low cost,” Colon said.
Colon has assisted Lori Madden in developing cross-cultural software for her business, SLS Publications.
Conferring with software developers has helped landscape designer Tricia Wing in planning a smartphone app to help growers across the region post updated information about their current stock of plants.
“10 heads are always better than one,” Wing said.