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Innkeeper finds niche with renovation

The building was first constructed in 1895 and was home to the Ybor City Land and Development Co.

By SUSAN LADIKA
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 13, 2002


When Jack Shiver opened the elegant Don Vicente de Ybor Historic Inn nearly two years ago, he envisioned the antique-filled lobby bustling with hotel guests and diners dropping by for a rich meal in the brick-walled restaurant.

Today, one is just as likely to find a lobby crowded with a bride and groom who have completed their nuptials and their entourage, couples celebrating 20th wedding anniversaries or businessmen attending corporate meetings.

Shiver, a pioneer in Ybor City's redevelopment, estimates about half of the inn's revenues come from overnight guests, the other half from special events.

"That's where we ended up. We didn't head out that way," Shiver said, "but you need to go with the flow and remain flexible."

Shiver has done a remarkable job of remaining flexible. The general contractor began staking his claim in Ybor City in 1988. "It was frightening here then," he said. Vagrants lived in abandoned buildings.

These days, Ybor is one of the places to see and be seen, and Shiver owns 14 buildings.

When he purchased the one now housing the inn in 1999, it had been devastated by fire. "You could stand in the basement and look out the roof," he recalled.

It was a sorry fate for the 1895 building, which originally housed the Ybor City Land and Development Co., owned by Vicente Martinez Ybor, developer of the now-historic neighborhood, which once bustled with cigar factories and immigrant workers.

The building later became the Gonzalez Clinic, providing care for immigrants and their families.

Eventually the building was abandoned and slid into disrepair. Shiver saw potential in the place. "I could see it down to the paintings on the walls," he said.

The property and reconstruction of the luxurious 16-room inn cost $2.7-million, and Shiver said he has already recouped his investment.

Entering the Don Vicente de Ybor at 1915 Avenida Republica de Cuba feels like stepping into an elegant European hotel. A glittering crystal chandelier from London graces the landing of the staircase; gold chandeliers with rose-tipped lamps come from turn-of-the-century Paris; and brocade and gilt furniture adorns the lobby.

Guests come from Europe, South America and downtown Tampa.

Casey Gonzmart, chairman of the Columbia Restaurant Group, was born in Ybor City, but moved with his family to Davis Islands around the age of 5.

"I haven't slept in Ybor City since I was a child," Gonzmart said. But he's returned a number of times with his wife, Cindy, to stay at the inn for special events, most recently Valentine's Day. "In my case, I'm living a little bit of my history.'

Gonzmart said the inn, along with the Hilton Garden Inn and a planned Hampton Inn, are crucial for the continued redevelopment of Ybor City.

Hotels are "going to inject the vitality and enable a renaissance."

Already, the bed and breakfast, which opened in November 2000, has an occupancy rate of about 55 percent. Shiver is satisfied, given the state of the economy.

The hotel's restaurant, overseen by prominent restaurateur Helen Chavez, is open to the public only for lunch. At night, it's set aside for parties, meetings and charity events. This fall, a martini and cigar bar is scheduled to open.

Among the repeat clients is the Florida Chapter of the American Fire Sprinkler Association, headed by Ron Cox, who owns Cox Fire Protection in East Tampa.

Cox's wife, Linda, said she heard Shiver speak at a meeting last year and decided to check out the inn's restaurant. "I was enchanted immediately," she said.

Because lunch was such a delight, the couple decided to hold the next association meeting at the inn, booking the entire hotel. "It was small enough to feel like it was yours," Linda Cox said.

In the past, the organization held meetings at beachfront hotels or more traditional convention hotels. This year, the association returned to the Don Vicente.

"This was just something entirely different," Linda Cox said. "People really wanted to go back."

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