tampabay.com

Tampa Bay's new address: Upscale, USA

More wealthy residents demand more luxury goods, from cars and couture to mansions and makeovers.

By HELEN HUNTLEY
Published July 9, 2006


The Rolls-Royce Phantom glides across the Howard Frankland Bridge as long as there isn't a traffic jam, accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds and costs $350,000.

Too pricey for the Tampa Bay market? Not at all.

Last year Dimmitt Motorcar Group of Clearwater sold 26 of the luxury cars, which the company says makes the Tampa Bay area the fourth-best Phantom market in the world, right after London, Beverly Hills and Tokyo.

"We're amazed at how much wealth there is in the Tampa Bay area," said Dimmitt president Jack Doherty, who manages the Rolls-Royce and Bentley brands. "Rolls-Royce is coming out with a convertible at the end of this year that will be $400,000. We have six of those presold."

Oh and Dimmitt sold 125 Bentleys last year. Starting price? $175,000.

While it's not quite Palm Beach just yet, Tampa Bay is making a mark as a luxury market. We've collected the critical mass of wealthy residents that attracts purveyors of luxury goods and services, and they're coming here in ever-growing numbers.

"The key is the affluence," said Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, which specializes in the luxury market. "There are somewhere between 40 and 100 markets in this country that have enough affluence to

support stores of Neiman Marcus' and Nordstrom's quality. That's where the luxury market is."

Tampa has Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom as anchors at International Plaza, as well as lots of other upscale stores. Neiman and rival Saks Fifth Avenue opened the Tampa Bay market's first Chanel boutiques this summer. Fashion designers Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Ferragamo have Tampa stores and there's no need to go elsewhere to shop for jewelry at Tiffany & Co.

Lydia Mattison, who took over last month as vice president and general manager of the Tampa Neiman Marcus, said the store stocks more premium goods than the one where she worked in downtown Minneapolis, a city some might consider more cosmopolitan. Prada Sport and the Dolce Gabana men's designer lines were standard in Tampa well before she could get the Dallas chain to add them to the Minneapolis inventory, she said.

Neiman sales associates ask customers which hard-to-get lines the store should be stocking. Mattison said they "repeatedly tell me we need more couture," the one-of-a-kind dresses priced at $10,000 and up.

Who are the big spenders who drop $10,000 on a dress and $350,000 on a car?

Many have connections to professional sports. That starts with those on the payroll of the Devil Rays, Bucs and Lightning, but goes well beyond. The Tampa Bay area is home base for many current and retired professional sports figures and a popular destination for many others who don't live here. Daunte Culpepper, who plays for the Miami Dolphins, bought a Rolls-Royce in Clearwater, Doherty said.

But most luxury car buyers are business owners, Doherty said. "This is what they want and they treat themselves."

Thanks to the bay area's robust economy, many business owners can afford that sort of luxury treatment.

"This area is a hotbed for entrepreneurial enterprise," said Tom duPont, publisher of the St. Petersburg-based duPont Registry and other magazines targeting the wealthy. In addition to specialty magazines for cars and houses, the company publishes duPont Registry Tampa Bay six times a year.

"Tampa Bay is a very attractive physical location," duPont said. "We've become a magnet for people looking for a luxurious and comfortable life."

Many of those who move here and start businesses made big money elsewhere but weren't ready to retire, said Lisa Glor, a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch in Tampa. "We don't even call it retirement on our team (of advisers); we call it financial freedom."

Milton Pedraza, who researches the preferences of the wealthy through the Luxury Institute, says postretirement business ventures are a growing phenomenon.

"These days the wealthy can work from anywhere and nobody's retiring in the capital 'R' way," he said. "They're retiring in the small 'r,' pursuing dreams and wanting to live in a place with a fabulous lifestyle. Florida and California really deliver those, but Florida is closer to Europe and the Caribbean where they want to travel and Florida has that strong sense of a business-minded approach."

Glor said the real-estate boom has created lots of new wealth. "There are so many people who have made a ton of money in land development."

In addition, some of the big spenders are seasonal residents and visitors.

The prerequisite for a luxury market is money, and some Tampa Bay residents have a lot of it. The Tampa Bay area has 83,617 millionaire households, according to a recent U.S. Trust report. That means 7.7 percent of the population has a net worth of at least $1-million, not including their primary residence.

Subtract other real estate and business equity and there are somewhere between 51,064 (U.S. Trust's number) and 56,021 (Merrill Lynch's number) households with at least $1-million in net financial assets. Merrill said it expects the number to grow 55 percent in the next five years.

Those are the kind of numbers that draw banks, brokerages and wealth managers. It's the reason the Tampa Bay area has a new office of Palm Beach-based Lydian Bank & Trust, which it opened by luring Cary Putrino from rival Northern Trust.

Purveyors of high fashion, big diamonds and BMWs are not as interested in accumulated wealth as they are in high disposable incomes. By some definitions, the luxury market extends to households with incomes as low as $75,000, mainly because singles at that level have considerable spending power. But it is the super affluent - households with incomes of $150,000 or more - who are considered the real prize because they spend a lot more.

Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have 40,598 of those super affluent households, plus 58,729 in the $100,000 to $149,999 category, according to research by Geoscape International.

The super affluent make up 4.6 percent of households in the two counties, but are 10 percent or more in the ZIP codes that include neighborhoods such as Avila, Lutz, Palma Ceia, Davis Islands, Westchase, Cheval and Tierra Verde.

Companies hoping to sell goods or services to the wealthy turn to market researchers such as Miami-based Geoscape to help them figure out where to open stores or branch offices and where to advertise. Researchers use surveys and computer models to identify which areas spend the most on travel or jewelry.

Evidence of affluence is all around us.

Last week, two dozen Tampa Bay area homes were listed on Realtor.com with price tags of $5-million or more, topped by a $25-million listing for the French-style Belleair mansion of Terry Bollea, better known to wrestling fans as Hulk Hogan. If that's a little too rich for you, one of his neighbors has a house on the market for $16-million.

"You go down to Naples and there are $20-, $30- and $40-million homes; now there are more people moving into the Tampa Bay area with that kind of money," said builder Jerry Glaser, whose custom homes are priced at $2-million and up.

He built one for Bill and Nancy Baumgart near Tarpon Springs with a $15.6-million price tag. The main house has 21,000-square feet and the guest house has 5,000. They liked it so much, they took out a full page ad in the Times to thank him.

Others stay put and upgrade where they are. They install marble floors and luxurious spas indoors and lavish pools and gardens outdoors - complete with waterfalls cascading down boulders created by companies like Largo's Boulder Formations.

Or they commission a company like Creative Arts in Pinellas Park to turn their dreams into reality. One specialty: home theaters for $100,000 to $400,000, not including the electronics. That buys lots of mahogany, cherry and exotic veneers for cabinets, display cases and paneling, fiber optic lighting and maybe a free-form transluscent bar with light-reflecting metal chips embedded in the resin. One family ordered a "walk of fame" - bronze stars with family members' names, installed as part of the floor.

"Almost every client has been very specific about the things they want to see," said company founder Roger Barganier. "They've experienced this type of thing at theme parks or in Vegas and they want it for themselves if they can afford it."

And, of course, when they go out, they do it in style.

If you're not up for a Rolls or a Bentley, you can buy a Mercedes, Lexus, BMW or another luxury make at a Tampa Bay area dealership. The luxury auto business is so profitable that AutoNation Inc., the nation's largest auto retailer, says it is scouting the Tampa Bay area for acquisitions of high-end dealerships.

Want to go out to eat? The luxury restaurant business in the bay area has expanded dramatically. Nowhere is that more evident than in the proliferation of restaurants serving people willing to shell out $50, $100 or sometimes more for a thick, juicy steak. Tampa's home-grown original, Bern's Steak House, competes for the upscale beef-lovers' business with the likes of Shula's Steak House, Ruth's Chris Steak House, The Capital Grille and Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar.

And if they want to leave the Tampa Bay area?

If they have plenty of time on their hands, they might do it in a luxury RV, like the $1.3-million Monaco Royale Coach available at Lazy Days RV Center in Seffner. Although $1-million sales are rare, Lazy Days has sold thousands of RVs in the $250,000 to $500,000 price range and runs a swanky clubhouse to cater to their buyers.

The more time-pressed travel by private jet.

"It is not unusual to see high-end corporate aircraft like the Gulfstream G500 or G550 sitting on the ramp, ready for departure," said Paul Phillips, director of general aviation at Tampa International Airport. Base price for the G550 is about $46-million. Two of them are based at the airport and two are considering locating there, Phillips said.

The number of private planes based at the airport has risen from 59 to 73 over the past five years. About half are jets. Phillips said the increased security hassles involved in flying commercial and the availability of shared ownership programs have increased the popularity of owning a jet.

"A lot of the folks that used to travel freely through air carrier airports now find it burdensome and difficult to get there two hours early," Phillips said. "In that two-hour time in your own personal jet, you could be at your destination."

If you were a multimillionaire.

Times staff writer Mark Albright contributed to this report. Helen Huntley can be reached at hhuntley@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8230.