If Bill Edwards' makeover of the former Treasure Island Tennis and Yacht Club is any indication of his ability to turn around a struggling entertainment facility, then there is real hope for BayWalk.
One year after relaunching it as the Club at Treasure Island, membership is up 146 percent, he has spent $2 million on improvements, special events and shows have garnered $49,000 in donations to All Children's Hospital and plans are under way to add a spa and 24 luxury suites.
"It's been fantastic. It's run like a well-run business," said Frank Struchen, whose family has been a member since he was a kid when the club opened in the 1970s. "Mr. Edwards is amazingly approachable. My mother fell down over the holidays and he was the first one holding the towels on her leg until they could get the first aid kit."
Edwards, who owns several Treasure Island houses and hotels, bought the bankrupt club in 2009 having never set foot inside. He renamed it, redesigned the menu in consultation with a former White House chef, enhanced services for families and started booking Vegas-style acts, bands and other entertainment for members and the public. About 220 people came for each of the Rat Pack tribute shows, while about 500 saw the Plain White Ts. KC and the Sunshine Band played on a clear stage built over the pool on New Year's Eve. Comedian Richard Lewis is appearing Oct. 14 and celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse is coming Nov. 4 for a $350 per person fundraiser with all proceeds going to All Children's.
"Joe Piscopo was great. He sang and played the piano. I went both nights," Struchen said. "Where else can you go see them right around the corner?"
Members pay about $25 for tickets to most shows and the public can come for $45. Though Edwards has made millions refinancing VA loans with his mortgage company Mortgage Investors Corp., he has always had a hand in the music and entertainment business representing artists and producing a few shows and concerts. In April, his music promotion company was awarded the job of managing and operating the Mahaffey Theater, owned by the city of St. Petersburg.
Club spokesman Scott Pinsker estimates there are more than 1,000 individual members made up of 187 memberships from the bankrupt club and 263 new memberships. It seems word is spreading across town. In the last six months, 26 new memberships are for individuals or families from downtown St. Petersburg, Snell Isle and the Old Northeast.
"We would have lost everything if it wasn't for him and we end up with an excellent facility. Our dues aren't any more than they were before," said Jack Nohren, a member for 20 years. "It's maintained immaculately. The food is really quite good. It's better than the average club food."
He said he and his wife have enjoyed almost all of the shows and comedy acts they attend two or three times a month.
"We enjoyed the Rat Pack very much," Nohren said. "There was one that was a kind of music that isn't quite our taste. We left as soon as we could."
Along with adding a wide variety of entertainment to the Club at Treasure Island, changes have been made to attract more young families.
"The club we inherited was older and we have a lot of older members who we value and cherish," Pinsker said. "We like the fact that so many families have joined. The median age for the entire club is 51."
There are now summer camps, spring break camps and sailing and tennis programs for youngsters. A marine biologist was just hired to help design a touch tank full of sea creatures and develop programs geared toward the environment. The club has four Yamaha Wave Runners that rent for $50 an hour and two paddle boards that rent for $15 an hour. A "free" arcade that doesn't require quarters or tokens is a big hit with children as well as parents who can have a relaxing drink or dinner while their kids are occupied.
"The biggest area of improvement is the pool. He has resurfaced the deck, added cabanas and more seating. Along with the new arcade game room upstairs, he added a Foosball and table tennis area down by the pool that the kids enjoy," said Christina Renvez, a member with two young children. "Prior to Edwards getting involved, the pool area was lacking. Chairs were broken and there was no real covered area for shade."
Tennis is the one amenity of the club that has shrunk since Edwards took over. He razed eight of 14 tennis courts to make way for future expansions, Struchen said. That was one reason some of the members of the former club didn't rejoin. Others were frustrated they had to pay a fee to rejoin after paying $2,500 to $4,000 years ago when they first joined the club. New members pay $500 to $3,000 to join depending on the type of membership and number of people joining. Monthly dues range from $150 to $3,000. All rates are set to go up in December.
Ten percent of all membership and event proceeds go to All Children's Hospital, declared Edwards, a longtime hospital donor, when the club officially reopened a year ago. He also promised that 100 percent of the proceeds from several events will go to the hospital.
Edwards is known as a generous man. He's also known for wanting to get things done his way on his time. But according to at least one city official, he hasn't been throwing his weight around.
"He's been involved in several projects out here and he's great to work with," said city planner Lynn Rosetti. "He renovated the Algiers hotel. He built and owns the Crystal Palms hotel. He gets the right people on board. He comes to see us ahead of time."
She expects the property where the Club at Treasure Island sits will probably need to be rezoned to allow for the planned 40,000-square-foot additional building, which will be the same size as the current building. No applications have been filed yet, but a traffic and parking study was just completed. The $18 million addition should be completed 18 months after receiving final permits.
Edwards said he is excited, not daunted, by the challenge of managing the Mahaffey, doubling the size of the club and taking over BayWalk simultaneously. He will work closely on all three projects with Joe Jimenez, managing director of the Edwards Group, whom he recruited last year to oversee the transformation of the club. Jimenez has 30 years of experience as an executive for properties including Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and the MGM Grand at Foxwoods in Connecticut.
Katherine Snow Smith can be contacted at (727) 893-8785 or firstname.lastname@example.org.