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Developer has big plans for Detroit Hotel complex

A self-described specialist in difficult renovations plans to pour about $3-million into the landmark downtown property.

By SHARON BOND

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- The historic Detroit Hotel is vacant and worn, but an Orlando developer is pumping $3-million into it to bring it back to life.

The renovations costs are on top of the $3.7-million Cameron Kuhn said he paid for the property in April. It includes the four-story hotel at 215 Central Ave. and its Lobby Bar, the Garden Restaurant, Ticketmaster, Detroit Liquors, Bertoni's Restaurant, the Pelican Bar, the Jannus Landing concert area, the Tamiami Bar, the Pelican Bar and Benson's Restaurant.

Until Kuhn bought the property, a plan had been in the works for more than a year to turn the long vacant rooms into investment condominiums. But that idea barely moved off the drawing board.

"This is what I specialize in," said Kuhn, standing outside the property, "the ones with all the problems, the ones usually nobody wants or nobody has the ability to finish."

Kuhn, 40, has successfully renovated several buildings in downtown Orlando, said Tom Kohler, executive director of the Orlando Downtown Development Board. Kohler describes Kuhn as aggressive and creative; the results of Kuhn's efforts in Orlando have been pleasing. "The final products are all quality," Kohler said.

Kuhn, who is originally from Chicago, said he started coming to St. Petersburg in 1992 to sail out of the Harborage. He described himself as "looking at the Detroit building forever."

"This has tons of character and a beautiful location. I think this corner is the central corner of downtown St. Petersburg."

Here's why. The Detroit Hotel looks across Central Avenue to the office building and tower built for Barnett Bank, which now is part of Bank of America. Diagonally across Second Street is the South Core Parking Garage, a Mediterranean-style building that also houses Florida Power Corp. on the ground floor. Directly across Second Street from the hotel is an empty lot used for parking. Just a few blocks beyond is the downtown waterfront, and a few blocks to the north, the retail/entertainment complex known as BayWalk is under construction.

Kuhn said he doesn't resell properties, he makes his money as a landlord.

He is talking with two companies about managing the hotel, which will have 90 rooms. The third and fourth floors will have approximately 70 regular hotel rooms, and the second floor will be devoted to 20 executive suites. The suites will be big enough for one office and one receptionist and could serve as satellite branches for regional companies.

"We want to be able to provide business services," Kuhn said.

Hotel rooms will rent for below $99, he said.

The Detroit was built in 1888 by St. Petersburg's founders, John Williams and Peter Demens, and famous guests included Eleanor Roosevelt and Will Rogers. The hotel closed in 1993, although the restaurants and concert venue remained active. The concert schedule will not be affected by construction, Kuhn said.

The renovation includes:

Jannus Landing courtyard behind the hotel, where a more permanent stage will be built and the portable toilets eliminated.

Tamiami Bar will be updated and the two upper floors made into a club for concertgoers who would rather not be in the courtyard outside.

The Lobby Bar will get a face lift.

The Garden Restaurant will close for 29 days during for its makeover.

Detroit Liquors and the Ticketmaster/Western Union will leave. In the Detroit Liquors space, Kuhn hopes to install a shop that sells fruit smoothies. He would like to tear down the small Ticketmaster/Western Union store, an addition that hides the original entrance to the hotel lobby.

Kuhn hopes to work out a joint venture with Benson's Restaurant to add its space to the Tamiami Bar so food can be served from the bar.

The Pelican Bar and Bertoni's will remain as they are.

Interior demolition is expected to begin June 1 with completion in eight months, Kuhn said.

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