Last year, Bern's Steak House owner David Laxer stood in an air conditioned tent before his Winefest VIPs to unveil a sexy plan: a luxury condo-hotel focused on food, just across the street from the legendary Tampa restaurant.
The Epicurean Hotel would house a new restaurant, upscale wine and cooking demonstrations, a culinary school, rooftop pool, bar and a spa, he said. It would be the first of its kind, Laxer touted. All on what had long been the restaurant's unassuming main parking lot.
But Laxer's timing couldn't have been worse. Bern's has been unable to secure financing for the project, and it is on hold indefinitely, says Heather Sherer-Berkoff, the restaurant's public relations director.
The project is the latest victim of a sagging real estate market and credit crunch. Although initial interest was high, only a few buyers signed contracts, said Rick Scherer, the real estate agent handling sales of the proposed hotel's 75 rooms and suites, offered for $200,000 and up.
Under the condo-hotel concept, owners buy units, get access to them for 45 days a year and get a percentage of room rental profits. Some in the industry say the concept is either too new to Tampa or just a bad fit for the SoHo area. Others say it could work with better timing.
"During times when there's somewhat of an insecurity in the market, buyers flee for tried-and-true products and locations," said Joel A. Cantor, who is developing the Signature condo tower in downtown St. Petersburg.
But Lou Plasencia, the leader of a Tampa hospitality transactions and consulting group, said SoHo would make a good hotel location. It's close to the water, has surrounding amenities and the trusted Bern's name. Banks and buyers just aren't willing to lend or invest in any projects that don't have instant returns.
"Once the market comes back, once the economy comes back, that project should do relatively well," Plasencia said.
Sherer-Berkoff said Laxer is not giving up on the Epicurean. "Most definitely, we would really like to do it," she said. "We'd really like to get it built. We think it would be a great addition to the Tampa economy. It's just tough right now."