On a recent, 98-degree afternoon, the lot shared by Lakeland Public Library and Polk Museum of Art was mostly full. Patrons wandered into the library. Black & Brew’s porch near the library entrance held people reading, studying, and just taking in a quiet moment. A small group sat at one of Red Door’s shaded patio tables. A runner passed by, headed toward Lake Morton. Cars made brief stops at Mr. Fish on East Palmetto Street and a little further down at the Stop N Shop convenience store, while a few people carefully folded laundry at Lake Morton Coin Laundry.
But two buildings along East Palmetto sit unfilled and largely ignored, except for the occasional wonderer of whether Marco’s Pizza is actually “coming soon” to the building at 719 E. Palmetto St. or whether anything actually operates out of the one at 801 E. Palmetto St.
While city officials, business owners, and neighborhood residents have hopes for the buildings’ futures, the building owners don’t have plans to share.
“I don’t have anything to say about it at the moment,” said David Pipkin, who owns 801 E. Palmetto St. along with Nancy Pipkin.
Terry Burkholder, who owns 719 E. Palmetto St. with Scott Decker through their business Deck and Burke Show LLC, said he is in limbo about what to do with the building. They started work with intentions to put a Marco’s Pizza in it, but found the building needed hundreds of thousands of dollars in updates and renovation for it to be usable.
“That makes you hesitate a little before you decide to do something like that,” Burkholder said.
They also hesitated because of a letter from the city noting its historic property status – which made him worry he would have difficulty getting any changes approved – and because they heard it can be hard to work with the city.
Burkholder said he thinks it’s in a great area but is debating pushing forward or selling the property. “It’s time to do it or don’t,” he said.
Teresa Maio, the city’s community planning and housing manager, said the city needs to do a better job of letting people know the process for redevelopment of historic properties because some minor changes, like painting and routine maintenance, can be OK’d at a staff level. She said the city’s Historic Preservation Board needs to review only exterior changes and major interior changes for historic buildings.
Maio said she could picture neighborhood retail or boutique stores filling the empty buildings.
City staff has had frequent internal discussion about East Palmetto Street. They have discussed what could be done to facilitate redevelopment of the older properties and vacant buildings. They have also discussed ideas such as shared parking that could help future businesses that would need space for customer parking.
Additionally, they’ve talked about the potential for street improvements that might help attract tenants. “I think there is a tremendous amount of potential for neighborhood uses,” she said.
However, the city offers no financial incentives to help attract change to East Palmetto. It does not fall within the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which covers downtown and midtown Lakeland, as well as Dixieland. The CRA is able to use some tax money to make improvements to the areas and to attract public and private investment.
Despite the internal discussions, staff has no plan to ask the City Commission for financial incentives for East Palmetto. Maio said they haven’t had property owners voice interest to the department.
The Lake Morton Neighborhood Association released a plan in April noting that East Palmetto and Frank Lloyd Wright Way, two commercial zones in the neighborhood, have improved and have “trendy local restaurants.” The plan seeks future improvements to sidewalks, addition of street parking, and filling in the area with mixed commercial and residential uses.
Julie Townsend, president of the Lake Morton Neighborhood Association, said the disrepair of the buildings and the lack of parking are challenges facing business owners who are interested in those properties. Still she wants the buildings to be filled with businesses that would serve the needs of the neighborhood.
She has heard ideas like bakeries and ice cream shops suggested, but she doesn’t think those would get enough daily traffic to flourish. Townsend suggested little restaurants or stores that would appeal to neighborhood residents and Florida Southern College students.
“In theory there are a lot of good ideas about what could fill those spaces, but in reality you have to have the density of people to spend money there,” she said.
Anne Kerr, president of Florida Southern College, envisions dining, boutiques, a bakery, professional offices and lofts as potential businesses that would do well in the area. With its proximity to the college and student living spaces, she thinks Florida Southern staff and students would be drawn there.
“I have the dream of one day that becoming one of those great shopping hangout areas,” Kerr said. “I think there’s already some success.”
Florida Southern’s recent formal partnership with the Polk Museum of Art increases the school’s interest in the area. Kerr said changes to East Palmetto would be mutually beneficial to the museum and businesses.
“The big question is: Who could drive that kind of renaissance in that area? … I think for it to really be successful you’d have to have a driver who created the whole strategy and plan, and then methodically pursue it,” Kerr said.
“We would be very excited for that part of Palmetto to experience a renaissance. It would be great for our students, and we’d love to be involved once it starts,” she added.
Black & Brew at Lake Morton, attached to the Lakeland Public Library, is the most recent addition to the businesses operating on or near East Palmetto.
Black & Brew owner Chris McArthur, who leases the library space from the city, said the new location has done great and has more customers than they expected because they underestimated how many people in the surrounding neighborhood would walk to or stop by the café.
McArthur said he thinks his business would further benefit from more restaurants and boutiques coming to East Palmetto and creating a cluster that could become a destination.
He thinks the challenges to that include the expensive infrastructure required for food service businesses and the lack of financial incentives to improve the historic properties.
“This area, though smaller (than downtown and Dixieland) has an opportunity to create its own unique identify,” McArthur said.