The Vinoy Legacy Part 2: Downtown Revitalization
This is the second of a two-part series on the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel. The first part told the story of the Vinoy’s restoration, reopening in 1992. The second part deals with the Vinoy restoration’s impact on the revitalization of downtown St. Petersburg. The current era of downtown revitalization may be divided into four phases: The Events Prior to 1999; The First Wave of Downtown Condominiums; A Second Wave of Downtown Construction; and The Present Boom Period.
Phase 1: The Vinoy Restoration Era
The restoration of the Vinoy is credited by many with being a major catalyst for the downtown revitalization, particularly near the waterfront. Fred Guest, one of the principals in the Vinoy’s restoration, envisioned it that way. Long before the restoration was accomplished, he said, “There have certainly been a lot of skeptics about downtown St. Petersburg. But we’re true believers in where St. Pete is going. I’ve felt for years that this was a town just waiting to happen, and I think in a couple of years this is going to be a spectacular city.” In a 1992 statement he said, “There was a special window: 1986, 87-88… the Dome [Tropicana Field stadium] was under way, Bay Plaza, the Mahaffey Theater, The Pier – it was before the recession, when it looked as if a lot of things were coming together for the city… Now many are looking to the Vinoy as the psychological boost that will make the long-hoped-for downtown rejuvenation a reality.”Guest spoke of the “intertwined future of the hotel and the city,” and said he hoped that “the hotel can generate spin-off success: restaurants and retail, even relocations by executives who stay at the hotel and find the city a good place to do business.” Later, in a 2012 Times interview, he said “I believed St. Pete could be this beautiful city, which it is now, and that the hotel would be the heart of it, and people locally would join, and other people would come from other parts of the world to visit.”
The restoration itself removed an eyesore from one of the downtown’s most prominent locations. A derelict Vinoy cut short any interest investors might have had in the city. The hotel is an important engine for the city’s economy in its own right, now employing approximately 500 people, generating annual revenue of nearly $50 million, and various taxes of nearly $6 million. But more importantly, the Vinoy’s reopening eventually played a major role in stimulating new construction and business, especially along Beach Drive and other nearby areas; helped make new financing available for additional development projects; and had an important psychological effect on investor confidence. As architect and Cloisters developer Randy Wedding said, “There was a lot of back pressure built up for a long period of time. The problem was that people were a bit timid about it [investing].”
Interpreting the cold statistical data available from the City on major construction throughout the downtown between 1985 and 2010 is challenging. If one were to graph it and control for inflation, there would be no steady progression of construction dating from the Vinoy. Prior to the Vinoy restoration in 1992, there were significant developments in 1985 (South Trust Tower), 1987 (Hilton Hotel Renovation), 1988 (Mahaffey Renovation), 1990 (Tropicana Field), and 1991 (Barnett Tower). Two of these were largely publicly funded projects, the Mahaffey and Tropicana Field. While Tropicana was not completed until 1990, the City first committed funding for it in 1983. Subsequent to the Vinoy restoration, there were also significant medical construction projects in 1994 and 1995 (Suncoast Medical, Bayfront, and All Children’s) and in 1997 another significant public investment in getting the Trop ready for baseball.Martin Normile, formerly president of St. Petersburg Progress, was a close observer of the Vinoy’s restoration and downtown’s revitalization. He states, “Not to diminish the real and symbolic significance of the Vinoy as a catalyst to downtown’s continuing development (even today), but St. Petersburg’s 1980s push for major league baseball and the stadium set the stage to attract the developer’s attention and investment in the Vinoy. The very controversial stadium decision demonstrated St. Petersburg’s determination and commitment to downtown redevelopment. Fred Guest and others saw in the stadium decision that St.Petersburg was serious and well-organized about pushing forward with development. If the city, county, and business community were so willing to take on that kind of project, then something special was about to happen in Downtown. It provided credibility and momentum.” Guest’s partner and president of the Vinoy Development Corporation, Craig McLaughlin, said, “The building of the stadium was huge for the Vinoy – sleepy old St. Pete rolling dice on a baseball stadium without a team. That was an image changer. Was it genius or was it folly?” Guest and McLaughlin thought it was genius. Similarly, Dave Fischer, mayor at the time the Vinoy opened and when St. Petersburg obtained a baseball franchise, stated “one thing baseball did early for us was stimulate the imagination of those who developed the hotel.” While the stadium helped get attention of investors in the Vinoy and other projects to follow, McLaughlin saw the opening of the Florida International Museum as of greater immediate importance with respect to Downtown’s revitalization. The museum was heavily subsidized by philanthropist John W. Galbraith and the City. It opened in 1995 with the Treasures of the Czars exhibit in the former Maas Brothers Department Store. The exhibit drew an amazing 600,000 visitors – more than twice the population of the city.
Former Mayor Dave Fischer was instrumental in obtaining the Czars exhibit. Originally the plan was to bring an exhibit on Catherine the Great. Mayor Fischer and former St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler flew to St. Petersburg, Russia, to make arrangements. Upon arrival they were escorted for three or four days by none other than Vladimir Putin who at that time was a mere assistant to the city mayor. After the visit to St. Petersburg, Fischer made a side trip to Moscow. While there, he visited the Kremlin Museums which held the treasures of the czars. Later, when negotiations for the Catherine exhibit fell through, he managed to secure the czars treasures, which had never before left the country.The Czars exhibit was topped in 1997-98 by the Titanic exhibit drawing 800,000 visitors. By comparison, the city’s most popular museum, the Dali, appears on track this year to reach a record 400,000 visitors. The International Museum continued to operate until 2007, however later exhibits were far less successful than Czars and Titanic. Nevertheless the museum had a significant impact on the downtown. Stores and restaurants sprang up near the museum almost overnight. A 1996 Times article hyping the Alexander the Great exhibit listed 45 restaurants and cafés within walking distance of the museum. A similar list printed in 1998 for the Empires of Mystery exhibit had grown to 64. Restaurants would even coordinate their menus to fit exhibit themes. Mel Sembler, developer of nearby BayWalk (now the Sundial), stated he never would have launched the shopping and entertainment complex if it hadn’t been for the museum. An economic impact study estimated that Czars alone generated $34 million outside the museum. The Czars’ impact even rippled over to the Fine Arts Museum and Pier helping break visitation records there. According to McLaughlin, the International Museum was significant in indirectly attracting new residents downtown. He also credits the “Get Downtown First Friday” events which date from the time of the International Museum and still continue. Prospective residents demanded restaurants and night life and the museum stimulated that. They also demanded shopping and BayWalk helped to provide that. Later, in 2003, the downtown Publix and CVS pharmacy were added. “It also gave the Vinoy something to market,” says McLaughlin. “Guests came to the Vinoy to see the Treasures of the Czars and later Titanic. The Vinoy’s guests liked what they saw in St. Pete. They especially appreciated the downtown waterfront parks and the proximity to the bay. Some decided to make St. Pete their home and influenced their friends to move to St. Pete as well. The Vinoy, the Museum, and the restaurants and retail again ‘created life’ in the downtown,” he added.
Phase 2: First Wave of Downtown Condos
None of the development to occur during this first phase was on Beach Drive or immediately adjacent to it. None of it was residential. Then in 1999, a second phase of revitalization began when a wave of residential condos began hitting the waterfront starting with the Cloisters, soon followed by the Florencia, Vinoy Place, and the Madison apartments, two blocks west of the Mahaffey. McLaughlin views this second phase as finally giving the downtown a “residential address.” These developments led the way in again validating downtown as a desirable place to live.After the 1992 reopening of the Vinoy, it took time to successfully reposition the hotel in the hospitality industry. Additionally, the nation was just coming out of a recession, and lodging revenue actually did not regain 1990 levels until 1996. The recession also put a damper on lending. New projects require lead time before construction begins. Planning and securing financing for a project to break ground in 1997 might typically start two or three years earlier. Taking that into consideration, given the reopening of the Vinoy in July 1992, the Vinoy’s impact was fairly quick. Ground was broken for the Cloisters in 1997, with opening in 1999. (The lead architect for the Cloisters was Randy Wedding. Wedding was previously a major player in R. W. Enterprises’ bid to restore the Vinoy.) Ground was broken for the Vinoy Place condos in 1998, three years before completion in 2001. Jack Bowman, longtime St. Petersburg realtor and one of the developers of the Cloisters in a 2012 statement said, “The Vinoy was the first piece of the puzzle. Guest took the chance, and he gets the credit. He saw there was something here worth doing. If it hadn’t been for him, we probably wouldn’t have done what we did.” Bob Ulrich, also a partner in the Cloisters, was mayor when Guest started the Vinoy venture. “The impact [of the Vinoy] was huge. It’s impossible to measure the amount of influence it had on further development,” he said. “There’s no other project downtown with the exception of the Dome [Tropicana Field] that anybody has put $95 million into. I do know there were other projects that lenders were reluctant to fund without the Vinoy. We might have had a difficult time financing [the Cloisters] without the Vinoy.”
Mike Cheezem, CEO of JMC Communities, said in a 2002 interview that the Vinoy opened the way for the Florencia on Beach Drive. “It was a real big factor in our decision to build that community, the Vinoy’s stature, its success, the quality of what they did, the clientele they were attracting.” The Florencia broke ground in 1998 and was completed in 2000. In the same interview Mayor Rick Baker summed it up, “I have always felt that bringing back downtown was a three-legged stool: Getting the Vinoy renovated, bringing baseball downtown, and getting an entertainment center into downtown. The Vinoy really kicked off the renovation of downtown St. Petersburg.”
Phase 3: Second Wave
McLaughlin saw these first Beach Drive projects as a test of the market. Could three downtown condos built about the same time be successful? Had the downtown again achieved the “synergy” and “critical mass” necessary for sustained development? The answer was a resounding “yes.” Once that was clear, the third phase of downtown revitalization began five years later. Starting in 2006 and continuing into 2009 was another wave of construction including Parkshore Plaza, 1010 Central, The Sage, 400 Beach, Ovation, and the Signature. There was also significant construction at USF and Mahaffey. Then building again paused as the effects of the Great Recession of 2008-2009 set in. But while the building market paused, McLaughlin’s perception is that the demand for living in downtown St. Pete did not. For example, he believes, despite the recession, the downtown saw yet another record number of restaurants.
Phase 4: Current BoomWe are now in a fourth phase with development reaching yet another peak. In 2010, All Children’s opened a new hospital. The new Dali Museum opened in 2011 as did Fusion Apartments on Central. St. Anthony’s Hospital underwent a major expansion in 2012. The Birchwood Inn opened on Beach Drive last year. Within a mile of the downtown waterfront parks, thirteen additional projects have either been recently completed or are underway. Seven of these are apartment buildings rather than condos reflecting a new trend. One development, to be built on the long near-vacant Tropicana Block on Central Avenue, combines a 13-story hotel with a 41-story condo tower. The condo tower will be taller than the city’s current tallest building, One Progress Plaza (originally the Barnett Bank Tower). All totalled, these projects will add over 2,000 new homes to the downtown. This is a huge addition of new housing units, nearly twice the number in the Snell Isle neighborhood north of Downtown, although on average it is expected there will be fewer people per unit.
It must be remembered that we are talking about downtown re-vitalization. Historically, downtown was perhaps even more vibrant in terms of activity in the past, and the structure of past vitality continues to serve as the foundation for today’s resurgence. Location of course is everything. Our founding city leaders recognized this by taking the downtown waterfront off the tax rolls and making a strategic decision to dedicate it as parkland. At one time, the Pier upland was far more developed than today, including the indoor Spa swimming pool, the Solarium for nude sun bathing, and several other recreational amenities. Before the Vinoy, there was the 300-room Soreno Hotel on Beach Drive. Both were located to take advantage of the waterfront parks, bay views, and water-related recreation.
The genesis of urban development can be a complex process, at times difficult to interpret. No doubt the baseball stadium and other pre-1992 projects had their influence, both on the decision to invest in the Vinoy and in subsequent projects. But, the Vinoy clearly played a special role in downtown revitalization, especially near the waterfront. Its narrative and ultimate success was definitely on the minds of the developers of the Cloisters, the Florencia, and others wanting to make an investment in our city. The role of the Florida International Museum, opening three years after the Vinoy, was also prominent, sparking restaurants, retail, and even BayWalk. While the International Museum is no longer, it was followed by an array of other prominent cultural institutions including the new Dali, an expanded Museum of Fine Arts, a renovated Mahaffey, the Chihuly Glass Collection, and an increasingly energetic History Museum, to name a few. Tom James, CEO of Raymond James Financial, has committed $75 million for a new museum to exhibit his collection of western and wildlife art. Ruby Ciccarello of the Two Red Roses Foundation plans to build the largest arts and crafts museum in the nation next to the Synovus Bank on 3rd Avenue North. A new Pier is pending, and master planning is underway to further invigorate the storied downtown waterfront parks. These cultural resources not only attract visitors, but also provide rich cultural opportunities for city residents, particularly those living in the downtown area. While the Vinoy was prominent in sparking the process of downtown revitalization, each subsequent development further added to the snowball effect, creating a synergy that both sustains development accomplishments previously achieved and boosts them further yet.
Sources: City of St. Petersburg, City Charter (1982, 1984), and “Major Downtown Development Projects List” (2014); Prudy Taylor Board, The Renaissance Vinoy: St. Petersburg’s Crown Jewel (1999); Evening Independent (Various; especially 4/23/86); Walter P. Fuller, St. Petersburg and Its People (1972) (pp. 219-229); Tampa Bay Times (Various but especially 11/7/84; 8/10/02;8/1/2012; 11/21/14); Hotel News Resource, “US Hotel Occupancy Rate to Recover to Pre-Recession Levels in 2014 According to PKF,” (March 18, 2014); Gary Lantrip, “Profile: Frederick E. Guest II,” Tampa Bay Life (September 1990); Communications with Peter Belmont, Martin Normile, Craig McLaughlin, and Dave Fischer. Also, many thanks to Elaine Normile, Renaissance Vinoy Hotel historian, for her extensive help and support.