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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 17, 2015 5 years ago

Dixie revival

A nimble entrepreneur revitalized a Polk County commercial project by making it one of the coolest places in town.
by: Barry Friedman Contributing Writer

Timing was a killer when father-and-son business partners Tom and Cory Petcoff and other investors spent nearly $1 million to renovate a retail and office complex just south of downtown Lakeland in 2005.

Like many others, the Petcoffs were victims of the economic downturn. Most of the suites in the project, Dixieland Village, emptied in 2008 and went unoccupied for several years.
But you'd never know it now.

Dixieland Village has become a mecca for the young and hip. They are drawn to the complex by a craft coffee shop, an assortment of artsy tenants, a weekly evening farmers market and a neighborhood supportive of upstart entrepreneurs.

Even better for the Petcoffs is that only one of the 15 suites at the 30,000-square-foot center currently lacks an occupant. Cory Petcoff says the biggest difference between now and then with Dixieland Village is the ability to stick with a vision — in addition to a lot of networking.

That vision borrows from the business incubator concept, where rent is sometimes discounted in return for future considerations. At Dixieland Village, Petcoff gives the budding entrepreneurs/tenants several months' rent forgiveness as they establish their businesses. That incentivizes them to grow fast and upgrade interiors.

“I love what Cory's doing there. It's a really neat atmosphere,” says Nis Nissen, a retired advertising executive who has been a part owner of the complex since 1979. “He's been able to nurture the young entrepreneurs. He met these young entrepreneurs and picked up on where the opportunity lies.”

A 36-year-old Lakeland native and Stetson University graduate, Petcoff returned to his hometown in 2003 after working with investment firms in Charlotte and Atlanta. He joined Baron Realty, a company started by his father, insurance executive Tom Petcoff. He changed the focus from real estate acquisition to property management.

The younger Petcoff, now president and CEO of Baron, says the syndicate of 20 investors formed to renovate Dixieland dwindled to five after tenants started to leave in the recession.

The complex, built in 1925, fronts Florida Avenue, Lakeland's main north-south thoroughfare, a mile south of the center of downtown. The Dixieland area, once a primary shopping district, went into decline when the city spread out in the 1980s and beyond. But the neighborhood has received renewed attention, and community redevelopment incentives and affordable rents have attracted new retail investment.

Petcoff says the turnaround at his complex began in 2009, when musician Aaron Marsh approached him about using space in Dixieland Village to build a recording studio. The deal he worked out with Marsh became a template for future arrangements. He provided him with an extended period of rent followed by a period of discounted rent to offset the cost of build-out. “It enabled him to build the studio he wanted and aided us in leasing a space that had been vacant for years,” Petcoff says.

The next new businesses were Fat Maggie's, a comfort food restaurant with a youthful following, and a film-production company called Indie Atlantic Films. Andy McIntire moved to Lakeland from Palm Beach County to start Indie Atlantic, and last month he opened Concord Coffee at Dixieland Village with a partner. More tenants have come from older tenants who
are keen to help the Lakeland-area young entrepreneur community. “I labeled this property as the hub for creative entrepreneurs,” Petcoff says.

An unexpected bonus to the Dixieland Village revival project: the buzz has brought inquiries about other Baron properties. That portfolio includes 622,000 square feet of commercial property, mostly offices and retail, in Polk County.

While Dixieland Village isn't Petcoff's biggest site, it's one that brings him a sense of fulfillment. “It's become in such high demand,” he says. “I have the ability to interview tenants to find not just the one that pays the most rent, but the one that's going to contribute to the community that we're building.”

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