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New buyer emerges for old YMCA building

ST. PETERSBURG — A circuit judge has cleared the way for a new buyer to purchase the historic downtown YMCA.

Nick Ekonomou, a developer and former Florida State University football player, said he plans to convert the 1926 Mediterranean jewel into luxury vacation rentals with a spa, event venue and brewery.

"I have no idea for a name yet. I know I want to put it back to its grand splendor," Ekonomou said.

Under a contract with a local partnership, he will pay $1.4 million for the building at 116 Fifth St. S on or before Sept. 30. He expects to invest another $6 million to $9 million in rehabbing the 50,000-square-foot building.

Music promoter and longtime YMCA suitor Tom Nestor will give up his dream of converting it into a "music mansion" with after-school classes for at-risk kids, concerts and a museum. After signing a purchase agreement in late 2012, Nestor had hosted frequent tours and fundraisers, and found eleventh-hour "angels" to finance installment payments of more than $300,000.

When a final payment of $1.2 million was due July 15, Nestor made a last-minute attempt to assign his purchase agreement to other investors, who wired the money to the current owners. The amount was miscalculated and the buyers weren't "related" as the contract required, so Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Jack Day ruled Thursday that Nestor didn't meet the terms of the closing.

A previous settlement agreement stated Ekonomou was next in line to buy the building.

"I will pay for this with cash and bank financing. I don't need to go out and get more partners to do this," Ekonomou said.

Ekonomou, 46, a former offensive lineman at FSU who played in the Canadian Football League in the early 1990s, has redeveloped numerous apartment projects and single-family homes in Miami-Dade County.

Earlier this year in St. Petersburg, he paid $370,000 for a 6,000-square-foot apartment building at 638 Third Ave. S that was built in 1910. He's in the process of renovating the building's eight rental units.

Ideas are swirling for the YMCA building, which was built for $550,000 during the Sunshine City's 1920s boom.

The basement pool, lined with decorative tiles where thousands of residents of the city learned to swim, will be a central part of the spa that Ekonomou envisions. Other basement space will lend itself to a small brewery to supply a house beer to a high-end restaurant upstairs.

The lofty gymnasium will house concerts and also be available for private events such as weddings and bat mitzvahs.

Ekonomou said he plans to build his own home on the top floor, as well as other apartments that could be rented for a night, a week or a month. He's also considering a boutique hotel concept.

For almost two years, Nestor has oozed with enthusiasm and ideas for renovating the property. He brought much attention to the historic building and rallied preservationists when there was talk of a bank buying and razing it.

"We're disappointed in the court's ruling and we're evaluating all of our options. It's extremely disappointing," Nestor said Thursday. He said he couldn't comment on whether the money that was loaned, donated or invested in his cause would be returned.

The deposits he has paid to the building's current owners are not refundable. With property taxes, insurance, maintenance, security and legal fees, the owners are not profiting on Nestor's failed closing or the pending sale, said Phil Powell, who heads the VPC3 ownership group.

"VPC3's investment and carry cost in the Y greatly exceed the proposed purchase price and any deposits," he said. "Our desire has always been to have this historic structure preserved. … We believe the decision today will ensure the preservation of the Y."

Powell said Ekonomou's chance of financial success is much better than his group's was seven years ago when it pulled the plug on the proposed Seville condos. Though half the units had been presold, the economic downturn was churning and the owners returned deposits to would-be buyers.

"The demand (now) for apartments and other types of housing is extremely strong," Powell said. A Cleveland-based residential developer has bought two adjacent blocks across from the YMCA to build hundreds of apartments.

Powell added that the city's decision to grant more street parking once a renovation of the YMCA is complete will also boost the property's financial viability.

"The lack of parking was clearly another problem we had in 2007, which has now been rectified," he said.

Contact Katherine Snow Smith at kssmith@tampabay.com. Follow @snowsmith.

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