TAMPA — When Punit Shah and Santosh Govindaraju bought the old Mercantile Bank building on Kennedy Boulevard, the ground floor was flooded, the elevators didn't work and demolition had been scheduled.
Two years and $20 million later, the pair on Wednesday celebrated the opening of the Aloft Tampa Downtown, a 130-room boutique hotel with views of the Hillsborough River, a bar, a poolside lounge and a sleek modern look.
"This was an abandoned building," said Shah, chief executive officer of Liberty Group, who partnered with Govindaraju's Convergent Capital Partners. But not one without a history: Every day, Shah said, someone tells him some tale about the building's past, including that Colombian drug dealers once tossed cocaine off the back of the property.
The original bank was built on about a half-acre in 1965. It closed as an office building in 2005 and was sold for $9 million in 2006 to a condominium developer with plans for a 52-story tower. After that plan unraveled in the real estate crash, Shah and Govindaraju stepped in. Shah said they worked to convince Aloft's parent company, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, "why this is the right product for this market, the right location, and the right demographic for this brand."
"We know this is the best fit for Tampa, the future of Tampa and where the city's headed," he said.
When Shah and Govindaraju look at distressed properties around downtown, they tend to think big. Along with the Aloft project, they tried to win control of Channelside Bay Plaza in a yearlong legal battle that ended just this week in a settlement putting the waterfront mall in the hands of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.
Aloft will charge rates that start at $159 per night and go up from there, varying with the season. The hotel began checking in guests on July 17, was 25 percent occupied on Wednesday and has its first sold-out night booked for Tuesday.
The Aloft is the second new hotel to open in the past two months inside a previously shuttered downtown building. In June, a Le Méridien, another Starwood brand, opened a 130-room hotel after a $26 million transformation of Tampa's historic but long-vacant former federal courthouse on N Florida Avenue.
To Mayor Bob Buckhorn, both projects are critically important.
"We needed to put these buildings back to productive use," he said. Beyond that, he said, energizing Tampa's waterfront, once an area of dilapidated wharves, will become "our calling card," particularly with "the young hipsters and the folks who can afford $12 martinis."
"Our ability to attract intellectual capital," Buckhorn said, "our ability to attract those millennials, our ability to attract those bright professionals from all over the globe to come here and be a part of this community, particularly to be a part of the urban core, depends upon places just like this."
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times