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Two decades ago, Vinoy sparked a renaissance in downtown St. Petersburg

On Sept. 19, 1980, rubble is all that remains of the old servant quarters of the Vinoy, which was closed for 18 years.
Published Jul. 31, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG

He built it and they came. They didn't come soon enough to cover his personal $30 million investment. But eventually they came.

This week marks 20 years since the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club was renovated and reopened by New York developer Fred Guest. As downtown St. Petersburg now bustles with shoppers, diners and tourists who fill restaurants and museums, it's hard to believe they would be there if not for the renovation of the Vinoy.

"The Vinoy was the first piece of the puzzle. Guest took the chance, and he gets the credit," said Jack Bowman, longtime St. Petersburg Realtor and one of the developers of the Cloisters condo tower at 288 Beach Drive NE. "He saw there was something here worth doing. If it hadn't been for him, we probably wouldn't have done what we did."

Bob Ulrich, also a partner in the Cloisters, was mayor when Guest started the $93 million makeover.

"The impact (of the Vinoy) was huge. It's impossible to measure the amount of influence it had on further development," he said. "There's no other project downtown with the exception of the Dome that anybody has put $95 million into. I do know there were other projects that lenders were reluctant to fund without the Vinoy. We might have had a difficult time financing (the Cloisters) without the Vinoy."

The Vinoy, at 501 Fifth Ave. N, opened to great acclaim and drew club members and guests immediately. But because so much money had gone into its construction, there was no cushion for the ups and downs of a new hotel's early years. Less than 12 months after the grand reopening, the bank filed for foreclosure. Since then it has been owned by four different companies and is now the property of FelCor Lodging Trust of Dallas and managed by Marriott.

Although he lost millions on the project, Guest still looks fondly at the Vinoy and its renovation and said he doesn't regret it.

He lives in New York but is a member of the Vinoy Club and spends a long weekend at the hotel once or twice a year. He said he is not surprised to see all the activity on Beach Drive and downtown. He'd seen it in his mind more than two decades ago.

"Things finally have taken place," he said recently in a telephone interview. "The problem with being a developer usually is you have visions. You can see what it's going to look like, but too often it doesn't happen in your lifetime or almost not."

When his vision first formulated in 1987, the Vinoy was an empty eyesore that had plagued downtown since closing in 1974. Rancid, standing water was a breeding ground for mosquitoes. High schoolers sneaked in to drink beer and play kickball among the ruins of the main dining room while the homeless camped out upstairs. On one city-led tour in the late 1980s, potential developers walked in to find a nonpaying guest roasting a pigeon on a stick over a campfire he'd built in the lobby.

Had Guest been the top bidder in his attempt to buy the Boca Raton Hotel in 1987 he probably would have never set foot in the Vinoy or St. Petersburg. But his was the second highest bid on that 1926 pink hotel. He had forged a friendship with the Boca hotel's manager, however, during the process. It was that manager who called him months later to suggest he take a look at the Vinoy.

"I walked through the hotel and saw the potential and said, 'Let's do it.' Life is serendipitous in that you have no idea what you might find of interest," Guest said.

But few bankers or hotel management companies shared his vision of a grand hotel along a quaint waterfront with shops and restaurants. Instead they saw a baseball stadium without a team, a downtown without a retail hub. Developer Bay Plaza had razed several buildings to make way for new construction, but that was at a standstill.

"We found it very, very difficult raising money because you took somebody through downtown and it looked like an empty parking lot. Instead of at least being old buildings, there they were all taken down," Guest recounted.

Add to that a few of Johnny Carson's punch lines. "Instead of newlyweds, St. Petersburg is home to the nearly dead," the beloved comedian cackled and called the city "God's waiting room."

"I would talk to a banker in some other part of the country and say the population has changed and it's gotten much younger and there's new technology in the area and all they remembered were the green benches and jokes," Guest bemoaned.

He tried to sell the plan of local members joining the hotel as a club. That would augment the tourist business, but nobody was familiar with a hotel-club concept. Management companies also balked at the thought of running a luxury resort with rooms and bathrooms the size of those built in 1925.

But for all the doubts, Guest thought the Vinoy was worth the struggle.

"It was a beautiful building that the city loved. Anybody I talked to told me about wonderful times there for their birthday or their wedding or any social event. That gave me a glimmer of hope that the community was so invested in it," he said. So Guest scrapped his initial designs and started over, making every two rooms into one and adding a tower of 100 new rooms. Then Ritz-Carlton announced it had plans to build a luxury hotel in Naples.

"This gave us a breath of air to live on a little longer," Guest said. "Up to that point everything was on the east coast of Florida. This allowed us to use the Ritz-Carlton and the rates they were going to charge as an example."

J.P. Morgan was Guest's adviser and broker in securing lending. Guest was given a list of 100 banks the broker would approach. Each day he marked a few more banks off the list until only two were left: Barclays and Credit Lyonnais.

"One was French and one was English. We convinced them they should work together on this," Guest recalled.

But considering the hotel ended up in foreclosure, perhaps the other 98 banks were right.

Still, Guest is proud of his role in the rebirth of downtown.

"Somebody wrote a book about optimists, and I think I'm in that category. I believed St. Pete could be this beautiful city, which it is now, and that the hotel would be the heart of it and people locally would join and other people would come from other parts of the world to visit."

Red Cloud Indian Arts at 208 Beach Drive NE opened in 1988, when the Vinoy was "just a birdhouse," owner Harriet Rambeaux said.

"The downtown area had only a couple of restaurants and nothing really at night. The Vinoy brought the whole city alive," she said. "It helped everybody down here, and it also attracted people to open up businesses. It really was the renaissance of downtown."

Tampa Bay Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Katherine Snow Smith can be contacted at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@tampabay.com.

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