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Ybor's cottage industry

photo
[Times photos: Fraser Hale]
Artist Tammy Dominguez designed Casita de Verdad to be a sensual experience. She will prepare a tailor-made, pampered stay for $180 on weekdays and $250 on weekends.

By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 29, 2002


Modest homes have become indigenous inns, and overnight revelers and romantics are booking them.

YBOR CITY -- In the old shotgun houses that skirt the Ybor City strip, things are changing.

Gone are the days of immigrants sleeping under tin roofs in tight-knit proximity, ambling each morning to labor at cigar factories.

Local entrepreneurs are trying to cash in on that vision of old Tampa, as well as the allure of an increasingly gentrified Ybor.

Several investors have renovated aging homes and now rent them out nightly from $180 to $400, pitching them as more quaint and roomy than a hotel room and only steps from Seventh Avenue action.

There are houses for every occasion, from raucous bachelor parties to romantic evenings for two.

And with only one chain hotel in Ybor, a Hilton on Ninth Avenue, the idea is beginning to catch on.

As small-business owner Richard Chad put it: "These groups are filling a void."

* * *

Eddie Serralles sees a gold mine in this neighborhood.

On the side of his pale green home on Sixth Avenue hangs a sign: "Have your party here. Ybor City Party House, Inc."

Inside, under the tin roof, a large multipurpose room unfolds, with refinished hardwood floors, a big screen TV, a stereo, plush couches and chairs. There's a full kitchen, a bathroom and shower. Serralles says it's perfect for bachelor parties, birthday parties or anything in between.

It's a guy's dream.

The party house costs $199 to rent on weeknights, $399 on weekends and about $1,000 for special events such as Guavaween.

It's right beside a parking garage, only steps to the strip.

Serralles figures he's carving out a unique niche. He plans to remodel other nearby houses in similar fashion.

"Ybor City is the next Mardi Gras," he said. "These houses in New Orleans are going for a fortune. Here in Tampa, I'm jumping on the bandwagon really early.

"I did my homework. I know that's the future."

One problem with the party house: Its parties don't always sit well with Sandra Shannon, the only neighbor for blocks.

"It's been loud a couple of times," said Shannon, who lives next door. "If they stay quiet and keep it contained to inside, I'd have no problem. But I've had to go over to let them know I was trying to sleep.

"I'd rather it have been a guest house or another residence."

Serralles said he tells his patrons to be considerate of neighbors.

"The bottom line is, you've got to have respect," he said. "You have to make it a win-win situation for everybody."

photo
The two-bedroom cottage known as Casita de Verdad offers a peaceful stay, as opposed to, say, the Ybor City Party House. The cottage was featured in a New York Times travel article this month.

* * *

A short walk from the party house, the Casita de Verdad stands in stark contrast.

A two-bedroom cottage filled with a mix of antique furniture and contemporary decor, the home caters to couples or small groups seeking quiet and comfort.

Local artist Tammy Dominguez manages the property and did the renovations. She said she designed the house, with its soft colors and Rudyard Kipling poetry on the wall, to "tantalize all the senses with color, sound and light."

For $180 on weekdays and $250 on weekends, she vows to give guests the royal treatment, to "customize their evening."

That includes warm chocolate chip cookies and fresh Plant City strawberries waiting when they arrive, as well as a choice of local beer or wine.

Dominguez also will pick up cigars for guests, make dinner reservations, and have soft music playing and candles lit when they arrive.

She also has coffee and pastries from Joffrey's delivered each morning.

"People told me it wouldn't work. They thought I was crazy," Dominguez said.

Almost two years after she starting renting the house, it hasn't turned out that way.

Guests have arrived from around the country. The house was featured in a New York Times travel article this month.

"The response has been very positive," Dominguez said. "If you read my guest book, you wouldn't believe it. People write me poetry; they send me gifts.

"I really have my heart in it."

* * *

As this old Latin neighborhood morphs into a tourist destination, more rental houses -- be they for parties or peacefulness -- are sure to spring up.

For better or worse, this isn't the immigrant's Ybor anymore.

Investors trying to lure customers to stay the night steps from Seventh Avenue argue that remodeling historic homes beats tearing them down and leaving the land to developers.

As long as the revelers and romantics keep coming, it makes good business sense, too.

"The response has been unbelievable," said Danny Tomlinson, part owner of the Casita de Verdad. "It's not a hard sell anymore."

-- Brady Dennis can be reached at 226-3386 or dennis@sptimes.com.

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