Artists ponder Railroad Square future after Tallahassee tornadoes

The art district’s owner told tenants he might have to sell ‘at some point,’ one of them said. ‘It was not an ‘if,’ it was going to happen.’


Music and laughter once rang out in Railroad Square, but on a recent Wednesday only a silence hung in the air, occasionally interrupted by the clang of a hammer or the crash of something ruined being tossed on a heap of trash.

While businesses that escaped damage have reopened, unprecedented tornadoes left Railroad Square, Tallahassee’s art district, a shell of its once vibrant self.

And the amount of damage to several of its spunky warehouses is proving to be too much for owners Adam and Lily Kaye. The area’s future is uncertain as the two siblings call on city and county leaders to buy a portion of the land for a dedicated arts district — something they have been advocating for over the years.

“We are providing the City/County with the opportunity to invest in and own a portion of the City’s Art District, which is on a valuable piece of property that will continue to increase in value, before involving private developers, from whom there has always been an interest,” Lily Kaye said in a statement to the Tallahassee Democrat.

“We are trying to ensure the sustainability of a community resource that has impacts on tourism, economic vitality, and quality of life, by giving the city/county the first right of refusal,” she added.

So far, the Kayes have only had conversations with commissioners and the mayor, Lily said in a Thursday interview with the Democrat.

“Everyone is in an exploration phase,” she said. “All options are open at this moment. There’s no specific path.”

But even as the owners and vendors stare into a sea of unknowns, their love for the arts and what Railroad Square means to them is fueling their drive to preserve the unique community’s fun, quirky and eclectic energy as they figure out how to pick up the pieces.

Boardwalk vendors are temporarily vacating for renovations

While the clean up and renovations are beginning, one tenant says the efforts are surrounded by “a whole lot of fear.”

Bob O’Lary, who owns FOTO Studio on Railroad Square’s Boardwalk, said all the businesses that operate there are having to relocate while contractors gut and renovate that section.

Vendors are “completely scared to death,” he said. Many fear the renovations won’t be done in a timely fashion and they’re unsure what they’re going to do about maintaining business in the meantime.

A new roof for his building, one of the few the Kayes had insured, is projected to be done within a minimum of two weeks, but O’Lary is skeptical of the timeframe and is anticipating to be out of a workspace for at least two months.

Across the way, Domi Station, a co-working space on the other side of the nearby railroad tracks, is willing to help its neighbors. The organization is offering “any displaced member from Railroad Square” an immediate and free membership and allowing them to store whatever they want in the building.

“I about dropped my teeth when I heard that,” O’Lary said.

Beyond the Boardwalk, the overall future of Railroad Square also weighs heavy on business owners’ minds with the possibility of new landlords. Decisions are being weighed and “the artists are caught square in the middle of it,” he said.

It’s not over for Railroad Square: The funky vibes will endure, Other Side Vintage owner says

The Other Side Vintage – a store bursting at the seams with bizarre clothes, furniture and art – was one of the lucky ones.

Zan Walker’s business managed to remain untouched by the destructive winds and is operating as normal, but she said it’s heartbreaking to watch her neighbors face a worse fate.

Business owners around her are sorting through the rubble and finding what of their inventory can be salvaged. Yet despite the major losses, everyone – even those who lost everything – are asking: “How can I help you?”

The community support for Railroad Square is incredible and important to getting the district back on its feet, she said: “Everyone’s saying it’s over, Railroad Square’s gone, it’ll never be the same, but I just don’t see that.”

Walker said she and many of the other business owners are staying and working hard to help each other. And they plan to do what it takes to keep the district’s eccentric culture alive, even if the damaged buildings do get bought out by a developer or some sort of local government intervention.

“There’s no way Railroad Square can’t be funky and have the vibe that it does,” Walker said. “We just can’t let that happen. We won’t.”

The Kayes hosted a meeting shortly after the tornadoes struck to inform their tenants that they couldn’t afford to repair the damage on their own, Walker said. He added it was the first time she saw her landlords get choked up, and for a moment, they all went beyond the landlord-tenant relationship and were just people.

‘This is the city’s chance’: Cosmic Cat Comics closes after an almost four decade run

Shop owners said the Kayes are doing what they can to support their tenants, but it’s just not enough to keep some of the art district’s beloved vendors afloat.

After 37 years, Cosmic Cat Comics has been forced to close its doors.

The tornadoes ripped off half of the siding of Ned Stacey’s building, allowing rain to pour in and soak his art gallery in the back of the building. Almost all of the inventory inside the comic book store was fine, but still, he saw this as an opportunity to make an exit.

“I’ve been wanting to retire for a while, but it’s just so hard,” he said. “It really takes something to happen for you to finally decide ‘that’s it I can’t do it anymore.’ ” Stacey has set up a GoFundMe to help with costs as his closes up shop.

Stacey said he has a big online presence that he will continue to sell comics from, but for all his regular store-side customers, this will be the last time they step inside what’s left of his store to get their latest editions.

While it’s terrible watching his business come to an end, Stacey said it’s likely worse for his customers. “Comic books come out every week,” he said. “If they don’t get their comic books every week, they get very upset.”

Even though Stacey’s business wasn’t able to make it, he said he isn’t worried about the culture and special atmosphere disappearing from Railroad Square even with the possibility of new ownership.

Adam “has told us in the past that this would happen at some point,” he said. “It was not an ‘if,’ it was going to happen.”

Railroad Square could be a really cool place if people had the money to do what they really want to do, he said, and it would be great if the city, or whoever, could provide those funds.

Stacey said he’s always thought that they should bulldoze the entire place and build a “really funky looking condo” with lots of retail space underneath for the vendors to operate out of.

“And a Ferris wheel,” he added. “I’ve really been pushing for a Ferris wheel.”

The destruction, while tragic, could open the door to the possibility of an even more bustling arts district that the arts community has been desiring for so long.

“This is the city’s chance,” he said.

‘Home for us’: Nell’d It owner calling it quits at Railroad Square but has high hopes for future

The roof of Sharnell Hall’s art studio Nell’d It was ripped off by the tornadoes that barreled through Railroad Square. Shortly after, the entire ceiling collapsed, taking her business with it.

“I’m not repairing a roof, a building, that I don’t own,” Hall said.

She was offered another space, but she said it didn’t fit her business needs. “I was basically forced to move,” she added.

Hall plans to restart her business elsewhere and thinks she’ll be able to operate almost the same way. She fed off the other businesses around her, so it will look different in the future, “but I think I’ll do OK,” she said.

Support from other vendors in Railroad Square have been a huge help throughout the roller coaster of life after a natural disaster.

“My neighbors are great,” Hall said. “I think during this whole thing we’re keeping each other up. I love my neighbors.”

Although her business’ future is taking a new turn, Hall said she isn’t worried about Railroad Square’s future. The area is different and a hub for creative minds, she said.

“It’s kind of like home for us, and I think the community loves it.”

Artist Jim Russell reflects on ‘dire’ present, future opportunity

Out of 100 paintings Jim Russell had displayed between two art galleries in Railroad Square, only one was destroyed beyond repair.

Russell’s art hung in the Able Artist Gallery and Feeling Art Collective, and he said the galleries’ owners are looking to reopen at some point

“The situation is dire, but I think that they are committed to make something work,” the retired police officer turned artist said.

Most of Russell’s sales are online and he works out of his home studio, but he is looking forward to when the galleries, and the rest of Railroad Square, gets back on its feet.

The community is definitely expressing its support for the arts and sees the value in Railroad Square, he said, and fundraisers and individual donations are rolling in for the arts district and individual businesses.

Railroad Square “is going to remain,” Russell said. “I just don’t know what that’s going to look like.”

Russell said he would love to see Tallahassee open up a city or county art gallery that includes local artists’ works as well as masterworks, creating a destination for tourists.

The arts community has great potential, and he’s hoping the city will embrace it, he said. It’s the job of local leadership to protect and cultivate Railroad Square’s special charm, he added.

“I think their views are it’s nice to have it, we’re happy to have them around, but there hasn’t been that recognition that we could really light a fire here and create a year round tourism industry,” he said.

But even without a major change, he said the artists are still “just as passionate as they’ve ever been,” and the quirky, eclectic feel of Railroad Square will live on.

Breaking & trending news reporter Elena Barrera can be reached at Follow her on X: @elenabarreraaa.

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