Local business owners struggle under the weight of booming downtown

Grassroots Kava House St. Petersburg is the establishment's original location. The other two are located in Seminole Heights and Ybor City.

By Kelsey Foresta Community Beat Reporter

Downtown St. Petersburg is the place to be when looking for local businesses to shop or dine, however, a lot of businesses have struggled to join or stay in the area.

Downtown has been the spot for a variety of local businesses throughout the years and is easily accessible by walking or nearby transit options. Covering roughly 420 acres between the waterfront by The Pier, to Martin Luther King Jr.. Street. N, downtown is home to local restaurants, bars, cafes, museums, shops, and even concert venues.

“Central Avenue is the spine of downtown, and the neighboring districts all makeup what we know as the downtown area of St. Petersburg,” said Breanne Williams, a Pinellas County real estate and economic development business reporter at the Tampa Bay Business Journal and a Tampa Bay native.

Downtown is a booming haven for nightlife, retail, restaurants, bars, and more. One of the many benefits of living downtown is the walkability: most places are walking distance from each other, and there are multiple options for public transit and transportation such as rentable scooters and bikes, the Downtown Looper, and the more recent SunRunner bus.

Another great perk businesses gain when joining the downtown area is saving money on advertising. Because of the heavy foot traffic and constant buzz surrounding the area, walking by so many different businesses lures customers into coming in or remembering the name. 

However, an interesting real estate market has been established in the Tampa Bay area.

As more and more people are moving and visiting, rent increases have worried a lot of local business owners, especially those downtown where rent is higher. This year alone, rent has already increased 2.9% for those in St. Petersburg, according to ApartmentList.

“If the business owns the building, there are really no downsides with being downtown, it’s the rent that is the troublesome part” Williams said.

An example of a business that owns its building is Grassroots Kava House.

Sarah Suits, who owns Grassroots with her husband, gave insight into her personal experience and perspective of owning a business residing downtown. Suits and her husband opened Grassroots’ first location on Central Ave in 2017 and rented the building until they were offered an opportunity to buy the building a couple of years later.

“We put together every penny from our couches…and you know that back in 2019, the market has gone up so much. And so, looking back, it’s like the greatest investment that we could have made.” Suits said.

Even with the downsides, downtown has been a haven for the arts, with hundreds of murals around, along with a sense of place for locals and tourists as well.

“Downtown created a sense of community for a lot of businesses, where they became a part of the niche identity of their district, therefore becoming a part of the community,” Williams said.

Grassroots Kava House is located in the middle of The Edge District on Central Ave.

One of Suits’ favorite parts of owning a local business is the community and diversity of the people.

“We’ve got so many entrepreneurs that come in and work all day long here. We have artists, developers, it’s just such a span of people. And it’s incredible that they all come to this space and create this community,” she said.

Another one of her favorite aspects is the platform local business owners have.

“It’s very fulfilling for me, to have a platform by Grassroots to support local artists and support local entertainers.” Suits said.

She mentioned several events Grassroots has hosted where they fundraised money for charities and different nonprofits, such as ‘Come Out St. Pete’, a nonprofit organization helping out different LGBTQ+ communities.

Businesses in a high-traffic area like downtown don’t struggle with a lack of customers or traction like those who reside in not-as-walkable areas. Especially if the business owns their own building, there really aren’t many downsides for them.

The local businesses and diverse communities are what make St. Petersburg a unique place to live in and visit. Hopefully, downtown can remain a creative, comfortable space for local communities to get together, shop and eat at, and explore for future generations to enjoy.