Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Bill Edwards builds a South Pinellas empire: 'I get things done'

Bill Edwards was known as a Treasure Island businessman with a mortgage company and music production business when he vied to run the Mahaffey Theater 10 years ago. When he bought the bankrupt Treasure Island Tennis & Yacht Club in 2009, his profile was growing around the beach town where he owned two hotels and had started a chamber of commerce.

Two years later, when he actually landed the contract to manage the Mahaffey, Edwards was considered a growing force among city leaders.

Now "Bill Edwards" is practically a household name in Pinellas County. When the Pier was closing, residents sat around hair salons and bars wishing he would step in and save the day. After all, he gave $600,000 to build a welcome tower on the Howard Frankland Bridge and made bids for the struggling Channelside Bay Plaza in Tampa and John's Pass Village in Madeira Beach.

In one decade Edwards has gone from little-known mortgage lender to power broker.

He has a stake in more than 20 businesses, nonprofits or other projects in South Pinellas and has invested more than $90 million in real estate and numerous ventures.

Now residents eagerly anticipate his highest-profile investment yet, Sundial. Edwards seems to enjoy the role of hero. The company he created to buy the deserted BayWalk in 2011 is named Loan Ranger Acquisitions.

He'll spend $40 million on Sundial, he said, and doesn't expect to see returns on it in his lifetime.

Edwards, 69, has also donated $4 million to the Mahaffey Theater, pitched in $300,000 to help lure Walmart to Midtown, and bought a majority ownership stake in Al Lang Field's home soccer team, the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

"I'm not the only guy (investing in St. Petersburg). This city is just cranking," Edwards said. "I think I'm just leading the pack. I consider myself a civic leader, and I get things done."

He's also a political force, having donated $1 million to Gov. Rick Scott's campaign efforts and $4.6 million to help finance the Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012.

When asked if his many investments in private and public entities could make government leaders feel beholden to him, Edwards scoffed.

"No. I think they are thankful," he said. "You can't count on government to do everything. You have to do things yourself."

The path to St. Pete

For his very public persona, there is an element of mystery around Edwards. He grew up poor in New Bedford, Mass., as Edward Francis Sylvia. At age 17 he enlisted in the Marines and fought in Vietnam, where he earned a Purple Heart. He returned home, got married and started a family. After some years he divorced, moved to Detroit and got into the mortgage business. Along the way he changed his name to Bill Edwards because he wanted a fresh start, he has explained, away from the negative feelings about Vietnam and a tough childhood.

A business trip brought Edwards to Tampa Bay in the mid 1990s, and he loved the area. He now owns a $9 million home on Snell Isle, where two men stand guard at the end of his driveway.

"I believe in security," he said.

A dominant player

The St. Petersburg City Council can't get enough of Edwards.

"At the end of the day if he wasn't doing it, who would? If we can get about 15 more of him I think we'd be great," said Wengay Newton.

"I wish we had more enthusiastic cheerleaders with deep pockets," echoed Steve Kornell.

Charlie Gerdes roundly praised him as well, but the fact that there aren't 15 other benefactors causes him some concern.

"The ideal thing would be diversity of investment downtown. You do have to be careful that economic generators aren't kind of all accumulating in one place," he said. "And government representatives need to make sure they are not prejudiced in any way when evaluating developments."

Edwards receives just as much praise within council chambers, where Bill Dudley has called him "a blessing." He hasn't been pressed when self-imposed deadlines for naming Sundial tenants have come and gone several times.

Ray Chiaramonte, who is watching Edwards' influence from across the bay as executive director of the Hillsborough County Planning Commission, doesn't see any red flags with his many investments in the area.

"He's not a developer looking only at the bottom line instead of long-term interest of the city,'' he said. "There are some developers that only do a project to make a lot of money, and then they are gone."

Architect and downtown St. Petersburg enthusiast Tim Clemmons echoed the sentiment, pointing to cities around the country where one person or family has invested millions of dollars. There's the Heinz family in Pittsburgh and the Basses in Fort Worth, Texas, for instance.

"Everything I've seen Bill Edwards do, the results have been really positive for the city," Clemmons said.

Still, he compared a healthy city to a strong ecosystem, a forest that needs 1,000 trees of numerous sizes, not just one big oak.

"You can't be too dependent on one entity, whether it's government, a corporation or an individual," Clemmons said. "What if all of the sudden that person moves on or passes away or gets frustrated at some point and takes his ball and goes home?"

Edwards, an independent spirit known for wanting things done his way, has already shown he's not afraid to change course or simply start his own.

• In October, blaming the cost of technology needed to comply with the Dodd-Frank act, he virtually shut down Mortgage Investors, laying off nearly 500 employees.

• In July, he helped to create the Treasure Island & Madeira Beach Chamber of Commerce, adding Madeira Beach to the chamber he started in 2005. All Pinellas beaches continue to be represented by the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber, which regularly gets national recognition for its lobbying and marketing.

• In August, two years after taking over management of the Mahaffey, he created the Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts, pushing aside the Mahaffey Foundation, which supported the theater for more than a decade.

• In 2012 Edwards withdrew his sponsorship of a sand sculpture event planned for Treasure Island during the Republican convention. He'd pledged $600,000, but tensions grew between the chamber and Police Department when the city's estimated costs, largely for added security, were more than $190,000.

• In 2004, after offering the city an $8 million donation and $2 million loan to renovate the Mahaffey if he were to manage it, Edwards withdrew the offer, citing unfair scrutiny by the Tampa Bay Times. (He still donated $2 million.)

The moneymaker

Council member Darden Rice thinks the city is fortunate to have Edwards as a benefactor.

"He's not seeing an immediate return on his investments. This is what he's putting out for the best of St. Petersburg," she said. "It is unfortunate there is a little bit of a cloudy background there with his mortgage business."

MIC has provided Edwards with money as well as controversy. In June the Federal Trade Commission levied a $7.5 million fine, the largest ever for violations of the Do Not Call telemarketing rule, against the company. The FTC alleges telemarketers misled veterans by implying that low-interest, fixed rates would last for the duration of their refinanced loans.

Also, MIC could be on the hook for millions because of an ongoing whistle-blower lawsuit alleging that it tried to collect hundreds of millions of dollars from government guarantees on loans procured through fraud. Six other banks have settled for a combined $161 million, but the defendants with the most exposure, MIC and Wells Fargo, are still fighting it.

Though the company is servicing only existing loans, it's still licensed and could become more active, Edwards said, if he decides he's comfortable with the new regulations.

But even without his largest income source, he's not worried about cash flow.

"In 22 years we did about $60 billion worth of business," he said. "You make income. It's not like I just went out and spent it all."

Blank canvas

Edwards has left his imprint from the beaches to the bay. But probably the biggest impressions he will make on St. Petersburg are yet to be revealed. Sundial, formerly BayWalk, at 153 Second Ave. N, is expected to open by July, Edwards has said.

And in March, Edwards paid $12 million cash for an entire city block in the middle of downtown.

The so-called Tropicana block at 25 Second St. N has almost unlimited development options with zoning that allows office, retail, entertainment, residential, lodging or a combination of any uses. Edwards isn't saying what he envisions for the space yet. One possibility is a hotel with luxury suites like one he wanted to build at the Club at Treasure Island.

The Tropicana block was one option last year when the city negotiated with Jabil Circuit about possibly moving its headquarters and more than 1,000 employees downtown. Edwards could develop the project for Jabil.

Though he loves Las Vegas, is tight with several powerhouses there, and frequents the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa, he said he's not pondering a casino or a quest to legalize gambling in Florida.

"I don't know anything about running a casino," he said. "I don't do things I don't understand."

So the canvas stays blank for now, but you can be sure Edwards plans to spend plenty of money on it.

"I know one thing," he said. "I can't spend it when I'm dead."

Times researchers Carolyn Edds, Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird and reporter Jeff Harrington contributed to this report. Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8785.

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