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Tampa may get Ritz glitz by 2011

A ritzy risk is how some observers see plans for a luxurious Ritz-Carlton hotel and condos near the Tampa airport.

By Steve Huettel
Published February 10, 2008


An artist's rendering of the planned Ritz-Carlton project in Tampa.

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[Handout photo]
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About the Ritz: What the new hotel and ajoining condo tower would offer

  • Hotel rooms: 269
  • Average daily rate: low $300s
  • Condo units: 176
  • Average condo price: $2.2-million ($784 per square foot)
  • Hotel amenities: Spa and wellness center; private club lounge; beach club; marina.
  • Project cost: $425-million.

Nowhere near home was special enough for the beachfront wedding of Scott Farrell and bride Sam Nagle.

He wrote off the Don CeSar Beach Resort, the pricey Pink Palace in St. Pete Beach. "The beach is so crowded," said Farrell, a Tampa lawyer. "You don't want some kid whizzing a Nerf Ball by your head."

So, on a warm May day in 2005 the couple arrived at the Ritz-Carlton Members Beach Club near Sarasota, checked their shoes with an attendant and tied the knot before 150 guests with the Gulf of Mexico as a backdrop. The tab for the wedding, reception and three bands - around $50,000 - "was well worth it," Farrell said.

Tampa Bay residents looking for a true luxury hotel must drive at least to Orlando or Sarasota. But the white-glove treatment could come to Tampa by 2011. A group including Clearwater developer Sandip Patel plans to build a 269-room Ritz-Carlton Hotel just west of Tampa International Airport, introducing the pampering service and eye-popping bills synonymous with the top-shelf brand. The $425-million project has 176 condos with an average price of $2.2-million, among the most expensive new units sold in the Tampa Bay area.

Ritz-Carlton executives had passed up other proposals, skeptical the market was ready for daily room rates north of $300. But they insist a Ritz-Carlton on Rocky Point, with sweeping views of Tampa Bay and a central location to the region, is a sure winner.

"This is a trifecta - a home run location, a home run design, a home run amount of space," says Ed Staros, managing director of two Ritz-Carlton resorts in Naples, who scouted the site as part of an evaluation team.

Hotel and real estate veterans are holding their bets.

Financing for the project, to be owned by Patel's partnership and managed by Ritz-Carlton, hinges on advance sales of half of the condos. That's a dicey proposition in a market unlikely to recover by the end of the year, if then. Developers of the upscale Grand Bohemian Hotel & Residences, which has yet to break ground in St. Petersburg, went from planning 82 condos above the hotel to 22 when so few buyers stepped up.

Rocky Point also poses problems, says Lou Plasencia, a hotel broker in Tampa. Boulders cover the waterfront of the Radisson Bay Harbor Hotel, which Patel's group will demolish to make room for the 19-story hotel and condo towers.

Guests won't have a wide, natural beach or private golf course, standard fare at all but one of the brand's other Florida locations. "Why go to a Ritz-Carlton in Tampa that's not on the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic when you can go to South Beach or Naples?"Plasencia asks.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio put a luxury hotel for the city on her to-do list, lobbying lodging executives and discussing locations. Landing a Ritz-Carlton gives communities a shot of civic pride.

It also helps attract high-profile events. Republican Party officials counted the lack of a "five-star hotel" as a strike against Tampa's bid for the national convention this year, says Mark Huey, Iorio's economic development administrator. "We're cautiously optimistic Sandip and his team can make this happen," he said.

Sandip Patel is a former general counsel at Tampa's Wellcare Health Plans but is not related to Wellcare founder and area philanthropist Kiran Patel.

The hotel will feature resort-style amenities: a large spa and wellness center, signature fine-dining restaurant and marina. But Ritz-Carlton classifies it a "city hotel" targeting business travelers and corporate meetings.

"It will lend itself to a lot of business Tampa hasn't seen before," says Richard Pearson, a partner from South Florida whose experience includes projects at Indian casino resorts.

Staros urged the developers not to skimp on the event space. Their plans call for 30,000 square feet that will include a corporate board room, various-sized meeting rooms and a ballroom that can seat 800 for dinner.

The location is a huge plus, says Staros - close to the airport, West Shore businesses and high-income zip codes in Pinellas and Hillsborough. He expects the convention and meeting crowd will start arriving Sunday night and fill the hotel through Thursday afternoon. Then, the hotel will shift gears for weekend weddings, anniversary parties and charitable events.

"In all of Tampa, all of St. Petersburg, all of Clearwater, there's a tremendous amount of wealth," Staros says. "This will be the country club, the social center of these communities."

Ezzat Coutry, a senior vice president for Ritz-Carlton, scouted downtown Tampa three years ago and wasn't convinced a hotel there could fetch enough high-end visitors.

Hotels like the Renaissance at International Plaza and Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay near the airport average nearly $200 a day. Ritz-Carltons typically get a $100 premium over such upper-upscale competitors, said Coutry, who oversees new projects in the Southeast and the Caribbean.

The brand's 66 hotels had an average daily rate of $328 for the first eight months of 2007, reported parent Marriott International. Plasencia, the hotel broker, doubts that enough visitors will pay that much or that the condos will move anytime soon. "I'm surprised Ritz pushed a project this early," he said.

Priced at $2-million to $3-million - or $784 per square foot - the condos will be among the Tampa Bay area's priciest. Only the Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach sold new units in that price range, said Marvin Rose of the Rose Residential Report, a real estate market tracking service.

"Typically, condos with the Ritz name increase the value 25 to 50 percent in pricing," said Pearson, the partner from Fort Lauderdale. "In this case, it will be a touch over a 30 percent premium."

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

[Last modified February 8, 2008, 12:47:34]


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