Saturday, July 21, 2018
Business

Travel insurance company brings tree houses, beer kegs and creativity to former church

ST. PETERSBURG — Neither the Lutherans who first occupied the 4300 block of Central Avenue, nor the evangelical congregation that followed could ever have imagined tree houses sprouting in their church sanctuary.

Yet that’s one of the plans of new owner Squaremouth Inc., which bought the property in December for $1.4 million, with plans to spend about that much more to create the unconventional work space it envisions.

Squaremouth is moving from smaller downtown space, on the top floor of the City Center office complex offering envious views, to the old church with its less fashionable address.

"There wasn’t room enough to grow," Chris Harvey, the company’s CEO, said.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Squaremouth puts hip workplace in downtown St. Petersburg

His online travel insurance comparison site, which offers an unorthodox work environment — employees sit at a different desk every day, for instance — had expanded to another floor at its 100 Second Ave. S site, but the move didn’t fit its collaborative philosophy.

"Even though we were only an elevator ride away, it separated us. We like wide open spaces," Harvey said, adding that employes work from laptops and sit wherever they please.

"We have couches and carpets, just places to hang out. We want to get back to more of that. ...We wanted to get a huge space again and build something creative."

The 20,000-square-foot church, at 4355 Central Ave., offers that opportunity, though it means moving further from downtown than planned. Employees will initially move into the sanctuary, with its high ceilings and stained glass windows. With the pews already gone, it’s here that the tree houses will take root.

"We think we’re going to do about five. We are going to do different themes, different heights," Harvey said, adding that they will be connected to the sanctuary’s loft by two bridges.

"Each tree house will have a different, alternative way down," he said.

Like firehouse poles, or slides. "Or, you could just walk across the bridge and down the stairs." Renovation and restoration of the building, part of which was constructed during the 1940s, will start in the atrium. The vaulted wooden ceiling in what was the original sanctuary is obscured by a drop ceiling, which will be removed. Plans also call for a European-style coffee shop in an area that includes a closed-off balcony, a commercial kitchen and an outdoor space with a fountain.

"We’re really hoping to move in April," said Aidan Harvey, the CEO’s son and company operations director, during a tour of the facility. He said the property has already been tented for termites. As he gave a tour of facility, sprawled over an entire block, wooden pews were being dismantled to be donated to an orphanage in Haiti.

The church’s former congregation, Gateway Christian Center, is leasing back some of the space until it moves to its new quarters in mid-March. The building had previously been occupied by the former Redeemer Lutheran congregation, which merged with Trinity Lutheran at 401 Fifth St. N in 2003. Gateway Christian Center bought the property that same year for $1.05 million, but has been burdened with its upkeep.

"We had three other deals that fell through at the last minute," said its pastor, the Rev. Joe Van Koevering.

When Squaremouth made an offer, church leaders were ready to accept it. Gateway Christian, affiliated with the Foursquare Gospel organization in California, is waiting to close on the Tradewinds Christian Church property at 6740 Park St. S in South Pasadena. The city of South Pasadena had hoped to buy the property for a new fire station.

Squaremouth is beginning to deal with some of the property’s delayed maintenance issues. Replacing the roof will cost about $200,000, Harvey said. That’s almost as much as he borrowed back in 2003 to start the business that offers its own line of travel insurance and also sells hundreds of others. It also has an office in Fort Wayne, Ind., for software development.

This will be the company’s fifth move. Harvey began Squaremouth in his home on St. Pete Beach, leased office space on Corey Avenue in 2009, then Dolphin Village the following year. The move to downtown St. Petersburg came in 2012.

"We were just not able to attract the right staff to travel out to the beach," Harvey said.

He described the company’s staff as diverse, with women making up a majority of the management team. It offers unlimited paid vacation, and because people were not taking vacation, the company decided to impose a mandatory minimum of 10 days.

"We all took a vote on it," Harvey said. "We don’t do micro management. If your job is to produce videos, how you get there really doesn’t matter."

There are other perks.

Last year, employees and their families were taken on an all-expenses-paid cruise. The company has three billiards tables, napping room, arcade machines and a keg with local beer on tap. There’s no dress code. The new Central Avenue location will have room to set up child care.

"The environment is designed to make people relaxed and become creative. We want to make it the best possible place to work," Harvey said.

The latest move was also put to a vote.

"We took everybody over and we went and sat in there and said, ‘These are the plans. What do you think?’" Harvey said. "Then overwhelmingly, everybody said, ‘Let’s do it.’"

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

Comments
He was fired after an encounter with a ‘racist’ customer. After sharing his story, Home Depot changed its mind.

He was fired after an encounter with a ‘racist’ customer. After sharing his story, Home Depot changed its mind.

After a man last Thursday approached the checkout at a Home Depot in Albany, New York, staff member Maurice Rucker asked him to leash his dog. That’s when the man exploded.Rucker, a 60-year-old black man, claimed he was fired Tuesday after defending ...
Published: 07/21/18
Open office plans are as bad as you thought

Open office plans are as bad as you thought

A cubicle-free workplace without private offices is supposed to force employees to collaborate. To have them talk more face-to-face. To get them off instant messenger and spontaneously brainstroming about new ideas.But a recent study by two researche...
Published: 07/21/18
Officials speak out against demolition plans for historic Jordan Park section

Officials speak out against demolition plans for historic Jordan Park section

ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County School board chair Rene Flowers was fired up Friday. She talked about growing up in Jordan Park, the city’s first public housing project and a sentimental and historic marker of St. Petersburg’s African-American commu...
Published: 07/20/18
Florida is still paying SunPass contractor, even after officials said they would stop

Florida is still paying SunPass contractor, even after officials said they would stop

Florida has not stopped paying the SunPass contractor responsible for the tolling system’s outage, even after transportation officials said the state would suspend all payments.In a letter on Monday, FDOT secretary Mike Dew said the state would not p...
Published: 07/20/18
Florida among the top 3 states with the most income inequality

Florida among the top 3 states with the most income inequality

Florida is one of three states in the nation with the biggest income gap between the very rich and everyone else.In 2015, a family in the top 1 percent nationally had an average income of more than $1.3 million — or 26.3 times as much as the $50,107 ...
Published: 07/20/18
Tampa International Airport ranked in top 10 for defense against cyber threats

Tampa International Airport ranked in top 10 for defense against cyber threats

TAMPA — Tampa International Airport was ranked this week as the 10th safest U.S. airport to go online without being hacked, but the ranking is not only about the place, but also about how savvy its travelers are.The data security firm Coronet ranked ...
Published: 07/20/18
When suicide threats come calling: ‘I try to make a connection.’

When suicide threats come calling: ‘I try to make a connection.’

TAMPA — At first glance, it’s a typical office with more than a dozen cubicles under florescent lights. The operators wear headsets and stare into computer screens, some tinkering with handheld toys, others browsing Facebook or chatting with colleagu...
Published: 07/20/18

State record of $321 million in unclaimed property back to residents and businesses

More than $321 million was returned to Florida residents and businesses from the state’s unclaimed property in the past fiscal year.Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Jimmy Patronis took office in July 2017 and said this year’s total broke last year’s rec...
Published: 07/20/18
Trump ready to hit all Chinese imports with tariffs

Trump ready to hit all Chinese imports with tariffs

Associated PressPresident Donald Trump has indicated that he’s willing to hit every product imported from China with tariffs, sending U.S. markets sliding before the opening bell Friday. In a taped interview with the business channel CNBC, Trump said...
Published: 07/20/18
Tampa Bay and Florida businesses expect tariffs to drive prices up

Tampa Bay and Florida businesses expect tariffs to drive prices up

TAMPA — Tariffs imposed by the Trump administration and other countries are beginning to push up prices and depress demand in spots around the Tampa Bay area and Florida, business executives say."We’ve definitely seen that the tariffs have increased ...
Published: 07/20/18