ST. PETERSBURG — In the future, the city envisions a very different Skyway Mall.
As a coalition of residents prepares to rebrand the 34th Street business district over the next year, many hope a developer will transform the aging shopping center into a modern collection of shops and restaurants on par with the Tyrone Square Mall area.
For the time being, though, a dogged group of merchants wants to remind shoppers that the faded retail center in the 4300 block of 34th Street South is, in fact, still open for business.
A carnival in the Maximo Plaza shopping center parking lot was meant to advertise that message. Rather than whizzing past a vast, empty parking lot, people driving by saw food, rides, families with children, life, for the first time in a while.
Parents who took their kids for the roller coasters and Ferris wheel meandered inside to find a handful of stores and services in what has become an indoor flea market with apparel, nail salons and a TV repair shop.
“We’re trying to get it back to the old Maximo Mall. It used to be packed,” said Surry DeJohn, who runs a cellphone business, Unlock Mobile.
Standing in the way of any revival, though, is a stigma about this part of the city, a mix of low- and high-income neighborhoods on the edge of the Sunshine Skyway.
People here say the bad rep is undeserved.
“I guess the south side has a bad reputation, so we’re trying to turn it around, let people know we’ve got some good businesses, legit businesses that need help,” DeJohn said.
Residents remember a different shopping center 30 years ago, when several name-brand retailers opened here and, for a long time, a dine-in movie theater.
Built in 1979, the mall had fallen into decline by the late 1990s and a large part of it was emptied when an indoor go-kart track left, its last significant attraction.
In the past decade, the 80,000-square-foot mall reinvented itself as a flea market, and a hardware store, book shop and church occupy adjacent retail spaces in the plaza.
Manager Brian Kim has made advertising one of his priorities as many people, even in nearby neighborhoods, think the mall is vacant.
The carnival dubbed Winter Fest had limited success in bringing in more shoppers, Kim said.
Kim plans to bring concerts and other events to the mall’s parking lot over the next year. If nothing else, he hopes the activity alone will get the mall back on peoples’ minds.
“South St. Pete never has this kind of stuff going on,” Kim said.
Retailers have found other ways to generate a little bit of buzz.
A small arcade with a pair of pool tables and a basketball game has been a draw for some kids after school, whose parents are slowly rediscovering the mall, said Edwin Rodriguez, who runs a TV repair shop.
It also helps keep the kids out of trouble.
“I bring them here, let them play pool, just to keep them busy,” said Rodriguez, a member of the Guardian Angels organization.
Rodriguez and other retailers say they would get more car traffic from busy 34th Street if the city relaxed rules about posting signs and banners along the road.
The problem is that once people do step inside, they find a lot of empty space.
“When you come out here, you don’t see nothing,” said Robert Thomas, who took his grandchildren to the carnival last weekend.
Thomas’ father ran a shoe repair shop in the plaza years ago and remembers the movie theater and other businesses being a strong draw. The mall needs another attraction that can’t be found elsewhere in the area, he said.
“It’s gotta to be something that’s going to make people say ‘Wow,’ ” Thomas said.
“If it’s too expensive, you’ll push people out,” he added.
Residents in more affluent waterfront neighborhoods such as Broadwater, directly behind the mall, have complained that the 34th Street business district has no sit-down restaurants and limited retail options outside of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, Publix and a few others.
A neighborhood coalition is working to rebrand the area between 30th Avenue South and 54th Avenue South as the Skyway Marina District, much like the Grand Central District near downtown. The city is expected to back the effort with $60,000 this year.
Part of the long-term plan will be a big financial incentive to the first developer to take on a major commercial project here.
A rendering created by city planners imagined the mall property as a grassy outdoor area surrounded by newly constructed shops and restaurants.
Kim thinks that change isn’t likely to happen until residents in the surrounding neighborhoods, both low and high income, start shopping there consistently rather than driving to downtown or the Tyrone Mall area.
In the meantime, Diane McCormick has faith she can catch some of those shoppers.
“Right now I’m working on stocking up my shelves in anticipation of more customers,” said McCormick, who sells greeting cards, Avon beauty products and a variety of other things.
“They really need us unless they just want Wal-Mart.”