By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
HARBOUR ISLAND -- Ron and Beverly Bailey don't star in movies for big bucks. They don't catch footballs, either.
But a look at their new house leads many to think they must be actors or athletes. Who else could afford the mega-mansion going up on the tip of Harbour Island?
Truth be told, the Baileys got rich owning a business school in Washington, D.C. They came to Tampa to retire, dote on grandkids -- and build their dream house on a $1.35-million lot that cost 54 times what they paid for their place up north.
"It kind of blows my mind," said Mrs. Bailey, who never imagined she'd be picking out an elevator or theater room furniture.
The Baileys, both 60, got hooked on Florida several years ago when their eldest son, Kyle, attended the University of Tampa.
They became regulars at the Wyndham Harbour Island Hotel, near their son's rented condo at Seddon Cove. The staff knew them by name and the couple quickly made friends.
It seemed only natural to stay permanently.
The two bought a $350,000 condo on Harbour Island in 1996. They loved the waterfront view and the palm-tree lined streets. Best of all, their son and his family live within walking distance in Port Royal, a single-family community on the island.
Even the condo makes them feel spoiled.
"I still have to pinch myself," Mrs. Bailey said. "I walk around here in the morning and think, 'I never thought I'd be walking around a place like this.' "
After a few years in Tampa, the Baileys bought half an acre on Renaissance Way in The Pointe, a new, gated community of 10 houses at the south end of the island.
The couple started construction on their Mediterranean palazzo about a year ago. It has five bedrooms, a movie room, game room, library, his and hers master suites, and a guest apartment. There's also an elevator for Mrs. Bailey, who says, "We're getting older instead of younger."
The house boasts about 13,000 square feet, not including the patios and balconies that nearly circle the exterior. A three-tier pool with waterfall and spa will overlook Seddon Channel. The four-car garage will hold their 2001 GMC Yukon Denali and 1999 Buick Riviera, plus a luxury car that makes Mrs. Bailey blush.
Once finished, the mansion will likely rank in the top 10 most expensive homes in Hillsborough County, county property officials said.
Rough estimates put the house at $4- to $6-million, sans the lot. That's big bucks for the Tampa Bay area. Lazy Days RV SuperCenter founder Don Wallace raised the bar a few years ago with his $8-million mansion on Bayshore Boulevard.
The Baileys want the inside of their home to be as spectacular as the outside.
To decorate, they called on friend Doris Edwards, the agent who sold them the lot and designs interiors on the side.
Edwards says the interior will feature an eclectic mix of Mediterranean, Asian, art deco and tropical decor. Every piece will have a purpose.
But will it top the Wallace house, with its huge aquariums and Renaissance-style murals?
"Well, I'm prejudiced," Edwards says with a smile.
Edwards designed the house to suit the family and take advantage of the water. The grandchildren have their own craft room and eating nook next to the dining area. Mrs. Bailey has a spot for wrapping gifts. Tall windows showcase the view of Davis Islands and the busy port.
The Baileys spared no expense on materials used in the decor. Leather ceilings? Bamboo floors? It's all part of the plan.
Edwards traveled across the country looking for accessories. She has four storage lockers full, and more keeps coming every day.
The Baileys plan to move in this fall. They expect to convert the condo into Gasparilla central for friends and relatives eager to watch the annual pirate ship festival from one of the best spots in town.
The house marks the culmination of a lifelong dream, especially for Mrs. Bailey, who longed for more counter space and cabinets. The couple lived in a modest home in Springfield, Va., for 38 years. It cost $25,000.
"She never had a new refrigerator," Bailey said of his wife of nearly 40 years. "She never had a new anything."
Now she'll have that and more.
Bailey's rise to riches came quickly and mightily. He took up teaching at Strayer College in the 1970s and, within years, led the operation. Then, in 1989, he mortgaged his house and sold his wife's Lincoln Continental to buy it.
The business school had a handful of buildings and a few thousand students when Bailey took over. Today it has more than 14,000 students at 17 campuses in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. It evolved from college to university.
But he's not bragging.
"I just came up with a model and it turned out to be a winner," said the former computer instructor, who grew up on a farm outside a coal camp in West Virginia.
Bailey sold most of his stake in the school last year for a reported $180-million. The Washington Post called him the mega-millionaire nobody's ever heard of, comparing him to the likes of AOL moguls Jim Kimsey and Steve Case.
Bailey calls himself fortunate.
Modest by nature, he is not one to flaunt his wealth. Money ruins people, he says. He rather spend it for the better good.
In that spirit, the Baileys started the Bailey Family Foundation in 1997 to help students with college tuition. The foundation plans to give about $2.5-million in scholarships this year to students with financial hardships. They intend to award a scholarship to every high school in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties.
Bailey works part time for the Tampa-based foundation on N Rio Street. He and his wife and their two married sons, Kyle, 29, and Kent, 27, serve as board members.
While cognizant of their privileged status, they prefer to keep things simple. Mrs. Bailey enjoys sitting on her patio with an iced tea, "contemplating life." Bailey likes going to Plant City, where they own land and attend church.
The Baileys look forward to a peaceful retirement in Tampa and laugh at notions that they must be famous to own their house.
"A lot of people are getting curious about it," Mrs. Bailey said. "It's something new to us, all of this attention."
-- Researcher John Martin contributed to this report.
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