BRADENTON -- A vacant lot may be the starting point for revitalizing a Bradenton neighborhood that once was home to businesses long gone because of road expansion in urban renewal projects.
The MLK Gateway Project calls for the creation of commercial space along the southwest corner of Ninth Avenue East and Third Street East, according to the city's Central Community Redevelopment Agency.
"We are going to study it and look at different scenarios on what we want to do with the MLK Gateway Project," said Timothy Polk, interim director for the agency.
In the 1960s and 1970s, mom-and-pop grocery stores, cleaners and restaurants operated in the area, recalls Councilman Harold Byrd Jr. But when Ninth Avenue East, or Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, was widened to four lanes as part of a renewal project, those businesses had to relocate and new ones never opened.
Cummings Mini-Mart, which has been on Seventh Street East for 11 years, used to be on Ninth Street East before the expansion, according to owner Albert Cummings Jr.Cummings, who has been in business for 18 years, can't recall the last time a store opened along Ninth Avenue East. "We used to have black businesses down the road," Cummings said, pointing toward Ninth Avenue. "But once they started expansion, that was it."
Customers walked in and out of his store last week, some buying soda and chips, others, lottery tickets. He knows most of their names.
"Thank you, Mr. Cummings," one woman said after paying for some groceries.
"This was the black corridor," Cummings said. "But no one came back. We used to have everything around us."
John McKinney's restaurant, J & J Bar B Que, used to be at Ninth Avenue and Third Street West from 1979 to 1984, but moved the summer of 1984 for more seating and parking spaces.
During the 1960s, McKinney says, Bradenton practically had two downtowns -- the present area downtown and a Ninth Avenue downtown. "There was the black downtown and the white downtown," he said.
To revitalize Ninth Avenue, community events and celebrations need to be held there to attract large crowds, suggests McKinney.
"A lot of businesses left, but nothing came back to take those places," he said. "You need a lot of time, money and effort into MLK to bring that area back."
Given the right location and funds, McKinney says he would consider moving back to Ninth Avenue.
The MLK Gateway Project, which focuses on 1.2 acres, is the result of partnering commitments. The redevelopment agency has committed financial support to the Urban Entrepreneur Partnership, a program established by the Kauffman Foundation, an international organization dedicated to coaching and educating entrepreneurs.
Due to its support for the program, the agency is "now ground zero for launching those business enterprises," according to agency documents.
Camille Brockman, Florida representative for Kauffman, said the foundation supports the possibility of having more space for new business owners.
"It is another very supportive way in which the community can support its small businesses," Brockman said.
She said the agency and Wells Fargo Bank were major donors to the foundation's program, which plans to train about 50 local entrepreneurs a year on how to create jobs and thrive in markets.
The first round of entrepreneurs is expected to begin training April 1.
Polk said that although they have not officially determined how to use the vacant space, the agency is leaning toward creating commercial space, rather than mixed-use development.
The agency had considered developing residential and commercial units on Ninth Avenue, but that plan was dismissed because the area has enough available housing.
The project could cost about $2.93 million, based on the agency's estimates.
The project would be "market-driven," Polk said, and would be considered as "neighborhood friendly retail."
"Any kind of retail that produces jobs is welcomed -- some mom-and-pop businesses and franchise retail," he added.
Many Ninth Avenue East area residents do not drive, said Tamara Reid-Graham, standing outside her family's home on Third Street East.
"A little plaza with different venues like a Payless or a hair salon would be good, something close that the community can walk to," she said.
Chris Samuels, who has lived in the neighborhood for at least 35 years, said the investment would be welcomed by the community. But she is skeptical about the likelihood of jobs actually being offered to nearby residents.
"A lot of times they say they will create jobs for the neighborhood, but then the neighborhood doesn't get any," said Samuels, 58.
Suncoast Community Capital, a nonprofit organization created by the redevelopment agency to help small businesses owners, "stands ready" should plans for commercial development move forward, said Mike Kennedy, the group's president and chief executive officer.
"We certainly from time to time have heard interest from startups and emerging entrepreneurs looking for locations within the district to begin their business," Kennedy said. "Entrepreneurs are always exploring every option."
Suncoast was selected as the host organization to help coordinate Kauffman's coaching efforts. Kennedy said new businesses would benefit from the "highly visible, extremely accessible, attractive location" along Ninth Avenue East.
The redevelopment agency also acquired two properties, 916 Third St. E. and 918 Third St. E., to "expand the footprint of the property and provide adequate green space," according to agency documents.
The Ninth Avenue East location would also provide new office space for the redevelopment agency, Suncoast and CareerEdge, a Manatee-Sarasota collaborative dedicated to workforce development, Polk said.
"We still have a long way to go in this economy to really bring this area back to the vibrant business area that was there before," Councilman Byrd said. "I would love to see a full revival with different shops and services, and different types of opportunities for people within the neighborhood."
Miriam Valverde, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow on Twitter@MiriamValverde.