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Developer plots high-tech project in Tampa port area

A resort founder unveils his vision for the Channel District, but port officials see a lot of work ahead for an area with many misfires.

[Artist rendering: Cannon Design]
The project would include a cone-shaped conference center and an adjoining hotel that could be the bay area's tallest building.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


TAMPA -- Murray Klauber wants to bring the world's biggest corporations to Tampa to beam conferences and exhibitions around the globe from a high-tech building that would look like a glass cone with the top cut off.

The colorful founder of the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort in Longboat Key has proposed building a $239-million complex -- including what might be the Tampa Bay area's tallest building -- on land owned by the Tampa Port Authority in the Channel District.

The centerpiece of his high-tech vision is a conference center with two amphitheaters, an exhibition floor the size of a football field and board rooms, all wired for beaming events through wireless communications, broadband fiber optics and even low-orbiting satellites.

An adjoining 56-floor hotel would include 550 suites with computers linked to the conference center.

"We're in the age of high-tech learning and global work," said Klauber, who at 74 starts his day at 6:30 a.m. with a 90-minute workout on the beach and in the Colony's health club. "We can supply all that in one edifice. It's incredible."

Klauber said he's plowed $1.5-million into the plans. In the last few weeks, he brought the president of a major hotel chain to Tampa to pitch the idea to Mayor Dick Greco.

"If it gets done, there will be nothing like it in the United States of America," said Greco, although he noted there are other developers with ideas for the site. "The plan is absolutely gorgeous."

It's also a long way from happening.

For starters, port officials say they still have lots of work to do on the deal. They're drafting an option on about 6 acres just north of the authority's headquarters on Channelside Drive.

If the port's board approves the deal, perhaps as soon as its March 20 meeting, Klauber would have a year to come up with financing and two years to start construction. Two hotel groups and several technology companies are interested in investing as partners, Klauber said.

Port officials are keenly aware that plenty of grand ideas for the Channel District have died or stalled, from a music amphitheater to a pirate ship museum to a space needle. But they're convinced Klauber's project is worth pursuing.

"It has great potential," said Zelko Kirincich, the port's managing director. "If anybody is capable of doing it, he'll do it. You need someone who thinks outside the box."

Klauber, who goes by "Murf," certainly fits the bill.

He chucked his career as an orthodontist in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1969 and moved to Longboat Key. He bought 110 beach shacks with a cracked tennis court on the barrier island and built the Colony, a nationally top-rated tennis resort.

Its 234 suites rent for $195 to $1,295 a night. It has 21 tennis courts, three restaurants and a gourmet market/wine shop.

Klauber had a hand in developing at least four other projects. He said he sold the land for Sarasota's downtown Hyatt and helped design the hotel.

In 1999, he approached Sarasota city officials with a predecessor to the plan he's now pitching to the Port of Tampa: a blueprint to develop several blocks of downtown with the technology conference center, multifamily housing and at least two high-rise hotels.

City officials, ready to launch their own master plan of the area, decided Klauber's blueprint was "too aggressive," said Sarasota planning director Jane Robinson.

While some officials questioned whether he had the expertise to pull off the project, she said, no one questioned his enthusiasm or doubted he could raise the money.

"Murf is a visionary," Robinson said. "He knows a lot of investment types who would go in on an investment like (the port project) if they look at the numbers and see the return."

The conference center design is striking. The bottom floors would be a "global cyber center" housing data storage and switching centers for area businesses.

Above would be amphitheaters -- one with 750 to 1,000 seats, the other with 250 to 350 seats -- with computer and communication hardware in front of each participant. Under the 45,000-square-foot exhibition floor would be miles of fiber-optic cable.

A health spa, club and up to four restaurants around a common kitchen would occupy top floors.

Each of the 550 hotel suites would include a private bedroom with a computer and living room with its own computer desk for two and video screen wired to the conference center.

Plans released Tuesday show the hotel would measure 56 stories. That would make it taller than Bank of America Plaza or 100 North Tampa, the two tallest office buildings in the Tampa Bay area. Neither Klauber nor port officials could confirm if the hotel would be the area's tallest skyscraper.

- Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Steve Huettel at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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