His goal for the Masonic temple? To help St. Petersburg keep its funky vibe

St. Petersburg native Blake Whitney Thompson is excited about downtown's rebirth but also worried that development is driving out the locally owned businesses that give downtown its hip, edgy vibe.
Published February 14
Updated February 15

ST. PETERSBURG — Creativity is everywhere apparent in Tampa Bay's urban landscape. In the eye-popping murals all over St. Petersburg. In the repurposed warehouses and cigar factories of Tampa.

So Blake Whitney Thompson hopes someone can come up with a truly creative use for one of St. Petersbug's most unusual downtown buildings — a former Masonic temple with ancient symbols and a mural depicting the Ark of the Covenant.

"What we want to do is something really special there,'' said Thompson, who bought the temple 18 months ago for $2.5 million and is still looking for the right tenant. "We've heard from people but I'm just not terribly excited about the kind of bland, corporate stuff they're talking about.''

Born and raised in St. Petersburg, the 37-year-old investor is excited about the rebirth of downtown and nearby Edge and Grand Central Districts. He worries, though, that development is driving out the distinctive, locally owned establishments that have given the area such a hip, funky vibe. Soaring rents are forcing businesses to close or go elsewhere. Daddy Kool Records, a long-time fixture downtown, recently announced that it is moving close to 34th Street.

So at a time when some downtown rents are pushing $50 a square foot, Thompson says he would hold rent at the Masonic temple to around $30 in order to attract a tenant as unique as the building. Regardless of the eventual occupant, though, he intends to preserve the 65-year-old temple even as other vintage structures are giving way to high-rise apartments and condos.

"He's not a developer who came in from another state looking to change everything up,'' said Debbie Sayegh, who with husband George partnered with Thompson in buying an old gas station on Central Avenue that will become a Greek-Lebanese restaurant. "He grew up here, I think he appreciates the properties here.''

Al Valdez said Thompson was "like a little godsend'' when he and his wife had to move their Thai-Mex restaurant, Nitally's, from the Grand Central District last year after the property owner decided to sell. Thompson offered to buy a 1940s building on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and lease it to them at a moderate rate for a new Nitally's, due to open within the next few months.

"He approached us and pitched us an offer and we took him up on it,'' Valdez said. "He helped to get us back to where we need to be, as close to downtown as possible.''

Thompson's interest in St. Petersburg comes naturally given his roots in the city. He was just 21 and still in law school when he decided that a building on Beach Drive was so ugly it needed to go. He wrote a letter to the owner — an emergency room doctor — and raised enough money from friends, family and a local bank to buy it and replace it with townhomes.

"At the time, it was pretty pioneering because St. Pete didn't have multi-million dollar townhomes like it does now,'' he said. "It's amazing because in such a small town, if it hadn't worked out it could have been really bad.''

In 2003, Thompson started a private equity firm called Blake Investment Partners. Its headquarters is in the Veillard House on Fourth Avenue N, built in 1901 and now on the National Register of Historic Places. Thompson bought the house in 2006 and sold it two years later when he acquired a California distribution company through a distressed asset sale.

Thompson liked California so much that he wound up staying there for six years.

"I made dozens and dozens of great relationships but couldn't stand the idea of (California) income taxes being so high and not benefiting my own town,'' he said. In 2015, he returned to St. Petersburg and bought back the Veillard.

Today, Blake Investment Partners has offices in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C. and Charleston, S.C. It owns a one-third interest in Heatherland Homes, which builds houses in the greater Atlanta area. It has a stake in Swampfox Aerial, a Georgia company that provides drone services for the real estate and construction businesses. Thompson's Blake Communities, backed by a $12-billion Minnesota hedge fund, has developed 86 new-home communities and is in the process of developing 45 more in nine states including Florida.

Closer to home, Thompson is building a sleek store on Fifth Avenue N near Fourth Street for MedMen Enterprises, the country's biggest medical marijuana provider. In September, the California-based company announced it was entering the Florida market through a $53 million deal that included long-term leases for stores in St. Petersburg and four other cities with the right to open at least 20 additional Florida stores.

"They take the best locations, they don't go in the back alleys,'' Thompson said of MedMen. "They are basically building an Apple store for a cannabis company.''

Last year, Thompson and Steve Gianfilippo, who owns the Station House and Cordova Inn in downtown St. Petersburg, partnered on plans for a 25-story condo tower near the Sundial entertainment complex. But that project is on indefinite hold pending the outcome of a lawsuit they filed against a Tampa company that owns part of the tract on which the 100-unit tower would go.

"There's virtually no movement on that deal at all,'' Thompson said. "I'm disappointed because I would like to see that resolved by now.''

In general, Thompson prefers "adaptive reuse'' of existing buildings, not construction of new ones.

He and another partner, Ryan Griffin, opened the Trophy Fish restaurant last year in a building dating to 1950 in the Grand Central District. Mandarin Hide, their popular cocktail bar, is in a century-old building in the heart of downtown.

"It had dirt floors before we renovated it,'' Thompson said.

In October, he bought the former Regions bank drive-thru behind the Masonic temple for $890,000. He hints that Griffin has something interesting planned for the property.

"Basically, it's going to be a hotel pool bar in the middle of downtown except there's no hotel,'' Thompson said.

In the meantime, he's still trying to find the perfect tenant for the temple itself. Built in the 1950s at 114 Fourth Street S, the three-story building has about 12,000 square feet and includes a cavernous hall with a stage, vaulted ceiling and what looks like a giant checkerboard in the middle of the floor. There is also a large kitchen, ample parking and enough room for outdoor seating along Fourth.

"We see the controversy of older buildings being taken down but this is a perfect example of taking a building that's structurally sound and doing an adaptive reuse and making it a project to give back to the city,'' said Wendy Giffin, the leasing agent. Ideas proposed so far include a restaurant, winery, music hall, church, co-work space and a law office.

Thompson, who lives in the city's Pinellas Point area, said he's in St. Petersburg for the long haul and can wait while other developers rush to build. Just to the south of the Masonic temple, a Miami developer is in the final planning stages for a 22-story, 219-unit apartment tower geared to well-heeled retirees. On the other side of Fourth Street S, an Ohio company has put up two big apartment complexes in the past few years.

"Out-of-towners have driven up prices to the point where I'm not actively trying to buy stuff off the shelf,'' Thompson said. "I love that St. Pete is growing but I don't want to overpay just to stay in the game. We've got a building'' — the Masonic temple — "that we can reuse for 20 or 30 years.''

Thompson said, though, that he intends to be actively involved in what he calls a "make it or break it'' decision for St. Petersburg — how to redevelop the 86-acre Tropicana Field site. He might even submit a proposal.

"A guy at 37 with the resources we have — I think we could do a lot to stay true to the bones of St. Petersburg and not turn it into Fort Lauderdale but bring in some really great stuff,'' he said. "I really want to do something good and long term in St. Pete. Making money and having fun is one thing but leaving a legacy is another.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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