Investor Frank Wells has ventured south of St. Pete’s craft brew hubs and trendy restaurants to start work on a cultural hub — and home away from home for visiting artists and entrepreneurs — in the city’s Midtown district.
Wells has named the property the Venture House, the namesake and flagship property of his non-profit organization (venture-house.org), which he founded with the aim to fix up abandoned properties and help creatives relocate to economically depressed areas. Wells purchased the two-story home at 1830 20th St S with his own funds, and has been sprucing it up with the assistance of community partnerships and volunteer support.
“The goal is to make this first property into a community asset,” he says.
Once open to the public, the Venture House will be an event and meeting space, and will provide reduced-rate lodging for visiting professionals and entrepreneurs.
Wells is picking up steam — both figuratively and literally — as he pours in sweat equity, knocking down old walls, replacing fixtures and rehabbing every nook and cranny.
The spacious two-story home will retain some of its historic molding and other accents but will be remodeled to meet American with Disabilities Act requirements. Built in 1903, the house still needs a good amount of rehab.
Artists and St. Petersburg makers have committed to contributing to the Midtown-area cultural center in progress. Funktionhouse is adding its stylish repurposed wood and other fixtures. A local church has donated building materials, and a County-run trades apprenticeship program for at-risk youth, HBI Job Corps, has been tapped to provide labor.
Along with a focus on cultural events, Wells plans to host high-end dinners for community fundraisers at the Venture House and has had discussions with a couple of the area’s top chefs.
When does Wells anticipate the grand opening? “My best guess is that we’ll be through enough of the renovations that it will be habitable by the end of the year, but I expect we’ll be building out some features for several months past that.”
Wells formed the community program Venture House in 2014 to target small clusters of boarded-up and foreclosed properties, remodel them and provide them as reduced-price rentals and purchases for entrepreneurs, creatives and non-profit organizations. Both single-family homes and multifamily units will be included.
“We operate now as a program of Bright Community Trust, which is a 501c3 nonprofit,” explains Wells. The CEO of World Power & Water, a renewable energy firm, has shifted his priorities to rejuvenating properties in the Midtown area.
Artists and creatives drive a lot of change…Now they’re becoming victims of their own success — it’s a much more desirable area, so rent is going up quite a lot, and several of them have been priced out.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and other city officials have voiced their support. Mayor Kriseman even issued a Proclamation of Venture House Day on July 27, 2016 (a date with the same digits as the city’s area code — 727).
“The rehab rebate credit from the city helps financially, and the city has been very helpful with technical resources,” Wells says. “When we’re ready to move into additional houses, we’ll be doing so with a lot of connections and momentum.”
In addition, Neighborhoods Affairs Director Mike Dove has been working with Wells to make sure the program’s objectives align with the city’s mission for neighborhoods and economic development. Nikki Capehart and Leah McRae have been assisting on behalf of the South Saint Pete Community Redevelopment Area.
“We’re appealing to a broad spectrum,” Wells says. “We want to help anyone who can contribute to the culture of the area.”
Taking cues from urban makeovers in New York and Boston — and, locally, in Ybor City, Seminole Heights and downtown St. Pete — Wells founded Venture House to give local independents a head start and help them stay grounded.
“Artists and creatives drive a lot of change — look at the 600 Block five to six years ago: largely artists and creative businesses,” Wells says. “Now they’re becoming victims of their own success — it’s a much more desirable area, so rent is going up quite a lot, and several of them have been priced out.”
Wells explains that a big piece of what makes Venture House distinctive is that the program will hold properties in a community land trust. That way, even as the area becomes more attractive — “as residents start fixing up houses and innovators move in and put down roots and create jobs, along with improving the overall culture and services around them” — the Venture Houses will remain affordable in the long-term.
“That’s by design,” he says. “That acts as a brake on gentrification.”
Wells adds that he isn’t fan of the “G” word. “It’s often used very loosely, when we should be talking more specifically about housing affordability or reducing extreme poverty, or inequality,” he says.
Getting investors on board with his greater-good mindset has been the St. Petersburg native’s biggest challenge so far.
“We’re still trying to encourage banks to donate properties to us, rather than sitting on them,” Wells says.
To find out more about Venture House, visit http://venture-house.org.