TAMPA — 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 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, said 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.
"The whole idea of the condo-hotel was to help with financing," Sherer-Berkoff said. Laxer has declined to reveal the overall cost of the project.
Under the condo-hotel concept, owners buy units, get access to them for 45 days a year and then 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. For instance, condo buyers may not be as likely to invest in a unique concept like the Epicurean or up-and-coming areas like the Channel District or downtown, as they would on Bayshore Boulevard or St. Pete Beach.
Joel Greene, a South Florida real estate broker specializing in condo-hotels, said out-of-towners mostly like to buy their second homes on the water.
"In South Florida, we have a handful of properties, condo-hotels, on the Fort Lauderdale strip. The one that is two blocks away from the beach, I hardly get any inquiries for," Greene said. "If I'm a New Yorker, and I'm going to travel a thousand miles, I'm going to want to be on the water."
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 right now that don't have instant returns.
"Once the market comes back, once the economy comes back, that project should do relatively well," Plasencia said.
But even if Bern's decided to drop the condo-hotel concept and convert the project into a straightforward boutique hotel, as some developers suggest, it could still be hard to get financing.
"Hotels are difficult to finance, and when you're not a proven group like a Ritz or other luxury brand, they (banks) are skeptical about financing now," Sherer-Berkoff said.
The plan was to have the Epicurean completed by February 2009, in time for Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa. Former Bern's and SideBern's executive chef Jeannie Pierola was to have created the hotel's signature restaurant, but she and Laxer parted ways in November.
Sherer-Berkoff said Laxer is not giving up on the Epicurean, which in addition to the luxury hotel, restaurant and culinary school also was to include a spa, wine store and rooftop pool.
"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."
Staff Writer Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.