Fairgrounds' welcome mural, created by Derek Donnelly and inspired by vintage Florida postcards, contains numerous hints to what's inside. Photo: Todd Bates.

A peek inside Fairgrounds St. Pete: Expect the unexpected

Wander through an other-worldly motel and find yourself in a hall of mirrors and lamps. Follow the shimmer from a swimming pool made of reflected light. Peer through the portals of a structure that’s part spacecraft, part Futuro house, part Twistee Treat. And prepare to encounter a ravishingly beautiful Black mermaid.

Repurposed lamps infinitely reflected inside the Mermaid Star Motel.
A view of the motel balconies from inside a central command module inspired by space-age Futuro homes.
Zulu Painter’s mermaid mural.

Those are just a few of the surprises in store for visitors to Fairgrounds St. Pete, an immersive art experience opening soon in a 15,000-sq-ft. building on the outskirts of the Warehouse Arts District. It’s one of eight buildings that once belonged to Madico, Inc., a manufacturer of window film, and all are now part of The Factory, an arts and culture campus-in-progress in which Fairgrounds will be the anchor tenant.

It seems apt that Fairgrounds is located in a facility once devoted to products that block out sunlight and prying eyes, because the project is nothing if not mysterious. It’s been provoking questions ever since it was announced in 2019, and the experience itself is designed to stir curiosity.

Co-founders Liz Dimmitt, the artrepreneur who dreamed up the idea, and Mikhail Mansion, the tech whiz charged with bringing it to fruition, both have deep family ties to Tampa Bay. So do Kara and Jordan Behar, architects and longtime friends of Dimmitt who helped engineer the $4.5 million purchase of the 6.5-acre Madico property. Out of their collective brainstorming arose a loose narrative drawn from the lore and lure of Florida — its architecture, its kitsch, its mermaids and astronauts, ‘canes and gators — to be realized through technological invention and the works of 64 artists commissioned from Florida and around the world.

A vision board for Fairgrounds St. Pete as seen on April 2 at The Factory
Chad Mize working on his Entrance Doodle Wall at Fairgrounds on April 29. This mural and his Exit Doodle Wall will be the first and last artworks Fairgrounds visitors will experience.
Apr. 2: The Factory’s Building #1, where components are being designed and built for Fairgrounds, which is housed in Building #6.
“This is where the real magic happens”: On April 2, Mikhail Mansion and Liz Dimmitt reveal three members of the creative technology team at work inside a climate-controlled tent in Building #1: Joshua Reynolds, who’s doing 3D printing, graphic designer Chad Jacobs, and Tess Oldfield, who’s developing interactive lighting.
Mansion and Dimmitt show the backside of the Mermaid Star Hotel’s “neon” sign on Apr. 2.
The sign installed, as seen on Apr. 29.

With a passel of professionals working behind the scenes in everything from lighting design to ticketing — many of them with experience in the arena-sized extravaganzas of Feld Entertainment — Fairgrounds promises to be a mix of cutting-edge art, interactive story-telling and just plain fun, an all-ages choose-your-own-adventure which could change each time you visit depending on what clues catch your eye. 

Lead scenic artist Sarah Carolan-Rodriguez, a 10-year veteran of Feld Entertainment, enjoys the floor she painted; it looks and feels amazingly like terrazzo.
The lab was the only room left intact from the building’s Madico days; it will be the site of workshops and tech demos.

One thing you can count on: visual and verbal puns. They’re hidden like Easter eggs throughout, say the creative team, extending even to the name Fairgrounds itself. A nod to the aura of discovery surrounding World’s Fairs and county fairs, it’s also a promise of fair dealing: Artists will get a cut of admission proceeds during the time their work is on display.

Apr. 29: The “residents” of the Mermaid Star are visible through its penthouse windows, the images changing as we watch.
St. Pete artist Nick Davis created the digital illustrations of Black characters in the windows; Tampa artist INDIE REECE created the tribal eye portals. Eyes, seeing and searching are recurring themes at Fairgrounds.

In the interest of keeping the surprises surprising — and in order to finish construction in time for a late May/early June start date — the folks who run Fairgrounds have been allowing only a limited number of visitors and releasing short YouTube previews. But duPont Registry Tampa Bay was fortunate enough to get two extended sneak peeks: first at the beginning of April, when construction was still in its raw early stages, and again a month later when several key elements were in place.

Much will remain concealed until opening. But in these tantalizing shots by Todd Bates you can get a glimpse of the magic in the making.

In coming weeks, look for in-depth interviews with members of the Fairgrounds creative team on dupontregistrytampabay.com.