ECB Publishing, Inc.
A Monticello institution from the mid 20th century is in the process of making a comeback, if not to its original form or purpose. Whatever the outcome, however, it's already an improvement over what was there previously.
Moreover, if it turns out as planned, it promises not only to be a fun and innovative addition to the town, but a possible game changer for the north side of U.S. 19. Already, the project is breathing new life and bringing a level of vibrancy and vitality into an area today largely defined by its many shuttered businesses.
Travel north on U.S.19 to where the road opens into a four lane just north of the historic district and you will see on the east side a festive grouping of multicolored buildings that, not that long ago, were abandoned and partially gutted, constituting a roadside eyesore. Today these same buildings, mostly renovated and painted individually in pink, green, blue, yellow and other pastel colors, are part of a Bahama/Caribbean-themed business park in the making.
Called simply The Plaza Complex, the enterprise is taking root on what was once home to the Georgia-Florida Motor Court, a thriving roadside motel that catered to tourists in the 30s, 40s, 50s and into the 60s, when U.S. 19 was a popular getaway route for northerners seeking respite from the harsh winters in the warmer southern climate.
Kara and Domenick Bellavigna and their four kids – Alex, Quinntia, Ethan and Annastasia, ages 19, 18, 15 and 12, respectively – are behind the family enterprise; and what an enterprise it is, with the family pitching in and doing most of the work themselves, absent fanfare.
“We don't let the fear of hard work scare us,” says Kara, noting that 12 to 16 hour days are not unusual for them.
The Bellavignas, in fact, have been working on the renovation project going on three years. And they foresee it going another two or three years before they're completed. When it's done, however, they envision a vibrant, multipurpose facility that will provide living space, as well as shopping, dining and entertainment opportunities for locals and visitors alike.
As envisioned, the plaza will include a sunken pool, an outdoors tiki bar, a sand lot, a venue for musical entertainment on weekends and sundry shops and businesses occupying the various renovated buildings – including a bakery store, ice cream pallor, pizza restaurant, beauty salon and barber shop, some of which establishments are already in place. Not to mention several dwelling units, some of which are presently occupied.
“We want a place where families and kids can come and have fun,” Domenick says.
“We dream big,” Kara adds, smiling.
But why choose a somewhat blighted part of town and a property in such disrepair?
Domenick concedes that many considered him crazy when he started the project. But he sees the venture as a calculated risk that will ultimately prove successful and beneficial. And he credits his wife for the idea.
“I chose this project because my wife wanted it,” he says.
The way Kara tells it, she got the idea for the enterprise from the Lake Ella Plaza off U.S. 27 in Tallahassee, which complex interestingly was once also a roadside motel that supposedly served as the model for the motor lodge here, if local lore can be believed.
Kara says that driving past the abandoned buildings during the years, she began to envision what they could become.
“I saw a vision,” she says. “I saw the potential for what it could be, with little businesses occupying the buildings, like the Lake Ella Plaza, but with a Bahama/Caribbean feel.”
Which explains the beachy feel to the place with its pastel hues and ocean-themed murals in the arched entranceway of the main building.
All the while the Bellavignas continue working on the larger project, they have also recently begun operating a pizza restaurant that's now a cornerstone of the enterprise. Called Mafia Pizza – a name originated by son Alex in tribute to Domenick's Italian heritage – the restaurant offers an assortment of pizzas, sandwiches, full entrees and wines and beers. No newbies to the restaurant industry, the Bellavignas previously operated a similar eatery in the Aucilla Shores area, and another one long before that.
Originally from up north – he is from New York and she from Ohio – the Bellavignas moved to Jefferson County by way of Melbourne, FL, about 14 years ago.
Domenick says he felt in love with the area during his travels in the northern part of state and southern Georgia when he was district manager for a furniture company. The area, he says, reminded him of upper state New York, where he was raised.
“It's a quiet place where kids can be safe,” he says.
As for his occupational background, he grew up in the construction business in New York.
“But I didn't want any part of it,” Domenick says.
Instead, he and Kara owned and operated a restaurant in New York for years, before moving to Florida, where he got into the furniture business.
“I'm still in the furniture business,” Domenick says. “I lease corporate furniture to construction companies and apartment complexes.”
His plan, however, is to transition out of the furniture business and run the pizza restaurant and oversee the plaza once the the plaza renovations are completed, if not before.