Back in the day, about 10 years ago, William McGovern used to hang out in Lake Park all the time.
“I used to rock out here, at the Kelsey Club,” he says. “And then it died out.”
But here the 32-year-old Jupiter resident is again, sitting right next door to his old haunt, enjoying a craft beer and playing Connect Four on a giant board with girlfriend Michelle Chrpa, 31, at the Brewhouse Gallery.
“And I love it,” he says.
He’s enjoying the renaissance of Park Avenue, or at least what artist-turned-entrepreneur-turned-local real estate investor A.J. Brockman is counting on as one.
Brockman opened Brewhouse Gallery two years ago, then bought the former Kelsey Club — and then, he bought the shopping plaza that fills the entire 700 block of the town’s commercial center.
He and others are betting that the success of this burgeoning arts district will extend all the way down the street, and then, maybe, the rest of the town.
“When we finally opened and saw the response from the other artists and the community,” Brockman says, “something clicked. I knew this could be the cornerstone.”
The Brewhouse Gallery anchors the district at the eastern end of the plaza. It’s next to the Kelsey Theater — for a time the Mos’Art Theater, which showed indie movies and housed a church, Vintage Worship.
“The arts are a really good draw, because they bring the community together, give people a place to call home,” says Mike Housel, who owns and runs the 6-month old Palm Beach Dance Academy in the new district. “There are not a lot of shopping centers where you can go have a drink, see beautiful art and go dancing all within feet of each other.”
“There are a lot of changes here,” says longtime North Palm Beach resident Scotty Tate, 70, enjoying a beer at the Brewhouse Gallery and eyeing a wooden table he’s had his eye on to buy. “For a long time, there were no people around. It was almost creepy. But I was here for the open mic night, and the place is crowded, so many young people.”
‘Make it a place people want to come’
Lake Park, once known as Kelsey City, is a town of about 8,300 just south of North Palm Beach.
The downtown, where Park Avenue sits, has a homey old-Florida feel, but that scenic character exists alongside some problems. The town reported the second-highest crime rate of any Palm Beach County municipality in 2014, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and a teenager was recently murdered there on his way to a bus stop.
“Growing up in Palm Beach County, there’s a whole thing that people know we’re in Lake Park and say, ‘Oh no, not Lake Park,’” says Wayne Felber, a local comedian who hosts events at the Kelsey Theater and assists Brockman. “The whole vision is to make it a place that people want to come. That plaza was pretty empty when he bought it.”
Brockman, 27, himself admits that his initial attraction to the area was not revitalization but “affordable rent” for the project that would become the Brewhouse Gallery, which he intended to be something different “than a nightclub or a tiki bar.”
The space, in a former adult daycare, needed a lot of adjustment, but he says that when he saw it, and the entire block, “something clicked. I saw a hidden little gem that maybe people had forgotten about.”
Comedian Felber started renting out the then-Mos’Art theater for fundraisers, the first of which was held the same night that the Brewhouse Gallery opened. Intrigued by “the craft beer and the art on the wall,” he suggested that the audience of his show “go hang out at the gallery.” Felber became a regular customer, and then approached Brockman about holding the official after-parties there.
Out of that grew a creative and business relation of like-minded creatives “who just clicked,” says Felber, who runs the Thursday night open mic nights at the Brewhouse. “There’s something about him that wants to give back to the community, and that’s what he’s doing.”
Filling vacancies one shop-owner at a time
Lake Park, unlike West Palm Beach and Lake Worth, two cities that also boast arts districts, “doesn’t have big CRA money behind it to get the word out and attract business, so this was more grassroots,” Brockman says.
He recruited shop-owners to fill the plaza’s vacant spots.
He convinced Kevin Goff, the West Palm Beach tattoo artist who’d done Brockman’s own work at Goff’s Autumn Skye shop, to open a second shop, Ivy and Oak, in Lake Park.
And he paid a visit to Mike Housel, who at the time was running Dance Tonight, a studio two blocks away in the 900 block of Park Avenue next to the post office, on what felt like “my own little island.”
When Brockman approached him “about the concept of what they were trying to build down here, that they wanted to build an arts district and have all the performing arts here, I knew we could help kind of complete the district,” and within six months of opening the new Palm Beach Dance Academy, “it’s busier. My customers feel safer, for one thing. There was a lady having drinks at the Brewhouse, saw someone teaching, came in and set up a lesson.”
Jessica Heimburger, 31, Goff’s fiancee and business partner and now Brockman’s personal assistant, says that the plaza works because the business owners and patrons have formed something of “a family. I think that’s one of the reasons people believe so much in it. It’s an arts district that’s a family-run business, and that’s what we are. Ivy and Oak is named after our daughter, Ivy, and after AJ, because he’s our oak, a stable entity in our lives that has helped us grow.”
The area’s changing, Brockman says. “ A lot of the older people who may have had homes here are passing away or moving on, and now you could have affordable housing for young people.”
“The culture, the diversity, and the possibility of what could happen in a place like this,” says Brewhouse patron Sally Jones, 53, of North Palm Beach. “It’s the most amazing thing. I’m shocked that this is here in Lake Park.”
Brockman would like to open a restaurant to anchor the plaza, as well as encourage more residential development “to get more younger couples to generate that foot traffic. Rodney Mayo took a gamble on Clematis Street, where there was nothing,” Brockman says.
“I’m not comparing myself to him by any means, but he had a vision and made it a new destination. A lot of people forgot about Lake Park, but now it’s back on the map. It’s a different Lake Park.”