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Columbia Restaurant owner picked to renovate Tampa's historic Water Works Building

The Water Works Building is on Highland Avenue, north of the David A. Straz Jr. Performing Arts Center. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn envisions the new restaurant as a Riverwalk anchor.
Published Jan. 26, 2012

TAMPA — The owner of Florida's oldest restaurant has been picked to undertake a $2 million privately financed renovation of Tampa's historic Water Works Building.

But Columbia Restaurant owner Richard Gonzmart isn't thinking about another version of his family's iconic Spanish restaurant, which opened in 1905.

Instead, Gonzmart and partner Bill Rain of Metro Bay Real Estate propose a seafood restaurant, chophouse and oyster bar with an outdoor cafe overlooking the Hillsborough River.

"What I envision is bringing the outside in and the inside out," Gonzmart said Wednesday.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn called the Water Works Building and the city park next door a "hidden gem."

"With this plan, we are going to re-energize that property and make it into something special," he said.

City officials, Gonzmart and Rain still must negotiate a formal development agreement, which will require City Council approval.

At one point, Gonzmart had hoped to have the new restaurant open in time for the Republican National Convention in late August, but he said that's not possible now. Instead, he and Rain aim to open the restaurant by the end of the year.

Gonzmart, whose grandparents lived directly across the river from the Water Works Building, sees the restaurant as a place for weddings and family parties. But it will be different.

"You wouldn't know the Columbia Restaurant was involved," he said.

The plan is to call it Ciao's, but not ciao like hello or goodbye.

Instead, it would be named for Berkeley Prep and former Jesuit football coach Dominick Ciao.

"You have to honor people who have been special in other people's lives," said Gonzmart, who helped coach junior varsity football while Ciao was at Jesuit.

The Water Works Building, essentially a red-brick warehouse, is at 1804 N Highland Ave., a few blocks north of the David A. Straz Jr. Performing Arts Center.

It also is just south of the Heights, once touted as a bright prospect for large-scale urban redevelopment. These days, the 48-acre property is tied up in foreclosure and Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings.

That bankruptcy creates a source of risk that Gonzmart and Rain want the city to help mitigate.

They have proposed to lease the Water Works property, which includes the city's cable television office, from the city for $1 a year for 20 years. They've requested an option to buy the property for $500,000 when the city gains the legal ability to sell it.

They've also asked for access to a parking lot west of the Stetson University College of Law.

Finally, they want the city to indemnify them from any legal action brought as a result of the previous development agreement for the Heights.

"It's a complex deal because of the ownership issues," Buckhorn said. "The land up there is tied up in a bankruptcy. No one owns all of it yet. There's a development that acknowledges that particular building as part of the development agreement, so we're going to have to work through some of that."

Before proceeding, the city sent the bankruptcy trustee a letter saying it believes it had the legal authority to go ahead with this plan. The trustee raised no red flags.

Still, the mayor said, "this will not be without its challenges."

And that's one of the reasons Buckhorn said he chose Gonzmart's project over three other proposals.

Not only is the Columbia proposal entirely self-funded, but "I needed it to be successful," Buckhorn said. "I needed a partner that had the financial wherewithal to be able to get it done, and clearly the Gonzmart family does."

Ultimately, Buckhorn believes it will be worth the effort.

That's because the project is next to the city's 5-acre Water Works Park, which is home to Ulele Spring, Tampa's original source of fresh drinking water.

Along with renovating the Water Works building, the city plans to:

• Add lighting, decorative fencing and — in the long run — pavilions, play areas and public boat slips to the park.

• Extend the Riverwalk at the park north to Seventh Avenue and south to Doyle Carlton Drive.

• Restore Ulele Spring, which is named for the daughter of a Timucuan chief who saved the life of a young 16th century Spanish explorer.

The spring's water currently is piped to the river, but the planned restoration will create a basin that allows water to pool on its way to the river. Work on the restoration is expected to begin this fall.

One day, officials hope, manatees will find their way into the basin. The Riverwalk will bridge that basin, and Buckhorn said the restaurant will be the walkway's northern anchor.

"I can't tell you how many people stop me and say, 'I have a boat. I have no place to go in downtown Tampa,' " he said. "This will give us one more place that people can come and enjoy."

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com, (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

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