Tell me about how you ended up “retiring” in Downtown St. Pete.
I was an executive of Darden Restaurants for 25 years, living in Orlando. St. Pete and the beach were always my reprieve. I’m a big city person and being here is what gives me the best of both worlds—the business opportunities alongside the only thing I find relaxing—being by the water. When it was time for me to retire from Darden, I opened my interior design, home and gift store, ZaZoo'd on Central. We have been involved in local residential renovations as well as renovations and interiors at Hollander Hotel, the new Cider Press Café & Gastropub, Avalon Hotel and Flute & Dram on Beach Drive. We love this city because it is all about small business and supporting small business and entrepreneurship. It’s a great place to start a business and has proven successful. They celebrate, embrace and keep the “mom and pop” piece alive.
The share of leisure and hospitality businesses within Downtown St. Pete is much higher than most of its peer downtowns. What does that say about our downtown? What does that mean for residents and workers? For those in the industry?
It’s amazing to see that so much of the business is homegrown or driven by business owners starting out for the first time. We don’t have a lot of big chains, and I think that’s what makes people love Downtown so much. That’s a cool thing that a lot of major cities can’t replicate. The city encourages it, and it breathes life into the volume of leisure and hospitality options.
The numbers show that we are a powerhouse destination for both international and domestic travelers. We offer something unique to travelers because our beautiful city offers a diverse selection of things to do while vacationing and is so close to some of the top-rated beaches and waterways in the world. It presents a world of opportunity for the people who live in this culturally diverse city. It allows residents to experience all this splendor while not having to go far from home. For workers, it gives them a variety of choices for employment while offering a great playground for their time off.
What are the biggest current challenges to the leisure and hospitality industry in Downtown?
We live in one of the most focused and friendly small business cities in the US. That is powerful for the entrepreneur who wants to take their creativity and run with it. The rising cost of rent, however, often makes it impossible for entrepreneurs to start a new venture. Labor shortages are another factor making it very hard for businesses to remain staffed.
What can you share regarding the Mari Jean Hotel?
The vision started at the site with the Saint at the site of the historic Mari Jean hotel—one of the oldest hotels in the city. This is a lighthearted speakeasy centered around exploring the play between what religion tells you to do and what people actually do. Its décor incorporates Catholic antiques from my childhood and the atmosphere is fun and approachable. From the success of this, I saw a bigger need and that was to deliver a product to the LGBTQ+ community. There is a huge market internationally for gay hotels and properties, and this development helps our city be even more marketable to that community. We are already an art destination—we’re a creative city that thrives on the arts, and it really fits with who we are as an LGBTQ+ community.
We are in the process of adding a kitchen, pool, outdoor bar, day club and giving the rooms a cosmetic facelift to transform the property into a Gay men’s resort. There is a huge opportunity to provide world-class resort style accommodations for the LGBTQ traveler that only exists in a few cities in the US. St Pete is home to one of the largest LGBTQ and LGBTQ friendly populations and that makes it a great place to launch this remodel and rebranding. We are maintaining the historic name, the Mari Jean, and are taking care to preserve many original aspects of the building as possible during the renovation. We look forward to completing the entire project in February.
Complete this sentence. Downtown St. Pete is a place to ____.
As a resident it is a place to experience the culture and diversity of a major US city while taking in the beauty and serenity of our white sand beaches. For a business owner, it is a place where you can live out your entrepreneurial dreams by being in a city that not only embraces your creativity but celebrates it.