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Renovation of Tampa Icon, the Floridan Hotel, Costing 'Millions, Millions'

By Richard Mullins, Tampa Tribune, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 17, 2008 - TAMPA -- Behind the boarded-up doors of the old Floridan Hotel, Lisa Shasteen tiptoes over scraps of plywood and up the pure white marble staircase into the grand lobby.

The noise and debris of renovation are everywhere, with teams of contractors drilling holes for wiring and banging away on plumbing -- a massive rebirth of a hotel that has seen movie star romances, raucous cocktail parties, hundreds of weddings and, finally, years of abandonment.

"I can't say exactly, but you wouldn't believe how much this renovation is costing -- millions, millions," Shasteen says.

Sunlight streams through arched windows onto a grand front desk. Shasteen points to ornate details such as remade iron railings that lead up the stairs and around balconies above, into what will be duplicated ballrooms, a cocktail lounge and spa. This is not a renovation, she notes. Rather, it's practically a re-creation of the hotel's glory days from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Case in point: The lobby ceiling is an elaborate pattern of plaster octagons, wreaths and pears.

"We spent a year on the ceiling alone, with guys laying on their backs on scaffolding up there redoing the plaster," Shasteen says.

Work has come a long way. For years, the building at Florida Avenue and Cass Street stood abandoned, windows blown out, rain pouring through a caved-in roof, homeless people seeking shelter in the suites.

When renovations started in 2005, she remembers walking through the 18th floor when a turkey buzzard walked past her. "He acted like he was a paying guest," she said.

The Bet

"People call Tony crazy to take on something like this. But he doesn't care," Shasteen says. "Tony" is Antonios Markopoulos, 67, the owner of the Floridan who is bankrolling the renovation of the 19-story hotel, a high-stakes bet that he can re-create a money-making boutique hotel for tourists and locals who remember its decades of history.

That could be risky, some hotel experts say.

"Pet projects tend to soak up way too much money for the return that people are expecting," said Dennis Reed, senior vice president of the Plasencia Group, a Tampa-based hotel marketing and sales company.

Reed lists the Floridan's drawbacks: He thinks it's too far to walk to the convention center. It's too small to book its own big conventions. A wholly independent hotel will lack the marketing muscle and reservation network of a chain hotel. Nearby, there's only the federal courthouse, and lawyers tend to stay at the modern Hyatt, Embassy Suites, Marriott, Sheraton or InterContinental.

To be sure, there are some small examples of development progress nearby. The Fly Bar on Franklin Street was once an empty building, but now a popular restaurant and nightspot. The city of Tampa is building an art museum and children's museum a few blocks away. There is the Skypoint and Element residential towers.

Nevertheless, Reed says he looked at the Floridan eight years ago.

"Even then, we thought it was a really iffy situation ... just to see it running 70 percent occupancy like the rest of the market, I just don't see it."

Best Bet -- Nostalgia

At the outset, the hotel will count on local nostalgia for selling power. And for some, those memories run deep.

"Oh, it was a grand place," says Mary Jim Scott, 84, who from the age of 2 to 24 lived on the Floridan's 19th floor. Her father was hotel manager. "I was just like Eloise, the little girl in the book who lived in the Plaza Hotel."

She remembers as a girl throwing her old toys from the roof one day "to kids down there that looked like they didn't have any toys," she says, laughing. "I was kind of a brat."

There were celebrity guests such as Charlton Heston, Gary Cooper and Elvis Presley. But there were some long-term residents, too: jewelers, doctors and decorators who lived in suites.

For 40 years, the hotel stood as Tampa's tallest building, with trolleys rolling between it and busy stores, theaters and offices. There were some ghosts, Scott thinks, and she remembers mafia murders outside, too. John F. Kennedy's motorcade drove by the hotel during his visit to Tampa, four days before he was assassinated in Dallas.

As decades passed, however, the hotel changed hands, eventually eroding into flophouse. After a fire in 1987, it stood abandoned.

"It made me sad," Scott says. "I just said if nobody's going to do anything with it, they should just tear it down."

Is Tony?

Then, about 2003, the forsaken Floridan drew the attention of a quiet man --whom colleagues call "very old-school" -- each time he drove into Tampa. A former restaurant owner from Washington, Markopoulos had sold a Days Inn hotel on Clearwater Beach for $40 million.

Shasteen, his business partner, told him to forget the Floridan. She had seen the decaying interior.

But he was set. The building had "good bones," with a solid steel frame built by New York bridge workers. He bought the Floridan for $6 million, then bought the adjacent U.S. Post Office and nearby parking areas.

Why? Markopoulos has an appreciation for old buildings and faith he can renovate them. When city officials questioned his experience with Floridan renovations, he noted that his house in Greece is 800 years old.

Will It Work?

The developers had hopes that the hotel might open before the Super Bowl in February. That might not happen. Markopoulos is using his own money, so he doesn't have to kowtow to investors pushing to open.

And he has his own work style. One day in his office, he calculated his accounts -- not on a computer, but on poster-size grid paper, carefully using a ruler and pencil to handwrite rows of numbers.

Not a chatty person, Markopoulos says only that the hotel is "a lot of work." He declines further interviews on the topic.

Shasteen and others hope for a lavish opening party, complete with a grand ball for former guests and Scott.

Ultimately, the travel market will decide whether the Floridan succeeds or stagnates. Embassy Suites recently completed a hotel tower next to the convention center. Westin is building a hotel near the Courtney Campbell Parkway. Clearwater recently revamped its zoning rules to encourage hotel construction. Recently, the InterContinental Hotel Group announced it would build a boutique Indigo hotel in the Channel District.

Depending on point of view, those are either hopeful signs for hotel room demand or just a lot of well-funded competition.

Meanwhile, work continues on the Floridan. When it will open is anyone's guess.

Shasteen says only: "When Tony's ready."

THE HISTORY

1926 Construction begins.

1927 The Francis J. Kennard-designed building opens, with 19 floors and more than 300 rooms at a cost of $1.9 million. It is Tampa's tallest building.

1930 Gary Cooper woos actress Lupe Velez at the hotel while filming "Hell Harbor."

1931 Clarence Darrow, known for defending John Scopes in the Monkey Trial, is a guest when he participates in a Bible debate with religious authorities held in Tampa.

1940s During World War II, its Sapphire Room bar is nicknamed the "Sure fire" because of its wild reputation among GIs.

1955 Elvis Presley stays at the hotel after a concert at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

1966 It closes as a commercial and tourist hotel and remains open only for long-term renters.

1966 The Franklin Exchange, at Franklin and Zach streets, takes the Floridan's place as the tallest building in Tampa.

1970s The hotel serves low-income long-term tenants and further degrades.

1985 Several small fires start in trash cans and storage rooms.

1987 Amerivest Corp. of Tampa purchases the hotel for $2.75 million.

1989 Akio Ogawa and Sity International Inc. buy the property at a foreclosure auction after Amerivest dissolves.

1989 The hotel closes after its new owners fail to bring it up to the fire code.

1996 Ogawa succeeds in having the hotel added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

1997 Ogawa and Sity International sell the hotel to Capital LLC.

2005 Antonios Markopoulos buys the property and begins renovations.

2005 The original Floridan Hotel sign is found in a rooftop storage space.

2008 The sign is placed on the hotel's roof.

Compiled by Tribune researcher Stephanie Pincus

Reporter Richard Mullins can be reached at (813) 259-7919 rmullins@tampatrib.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Tampa Tribune, Fla.

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