St. Petersburg Times Online: Floridian

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Over the rainbow

Gays and lesbians from all over Florida and beyond have a place to kick back and relax with friends at a thriving city within a city, the Suncoast Resort Hotel in St. Petersburg. The upscale entertainment and shopping mecca is a home away from home.

By TWILA DECKER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 9, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Hundreds of scantily clad bodies, most men, are grinding away on the cement dance floor between the tiki hut and the swimming pool.

A clown on stilts is bobbing through the crowd, working for tips. Other guests are playing volleyball or tossing a beach ball through the air.

"Hi, cutie," one guy tells another, as he brushes past him toward the dance floor.

It's Sunday afternoon at the Suncoast Resort Hotel, and for many gays and lesbians, this is the place to be.

Never mind that the 120-room resort sits on 34thStreet S -- U.S. 19 -- which, when it comes to beauty, will never be confused with the French Riviera. That there's no beach, lake or mountains on the horizon. And that if guests stand in the parking lot and squint, the most interesting sight they'll see is the big chicken statue in front of Skyway Jack's restaurant.

What the dusty rose and turquoise hotel does have going for it is more important than location. The resort, with six bars and shops selling everything from jewelry to leather, gives gays and lesbians a refuge -- a place to feel comfortable holding hands, kissing or dancing.

"We got here Friday and we don't want to leave," says Jason Ruse, who drove over from West Palm Beach with his partner, Matt Stile. "We need to head back, but we keep putting it off."

The 'West Coast Wonder'

It is easy to tell something is happening at Suncoast just by the cars overflowing the parking lot and lining the streets. But it is hard to tell exactly what.

Business is phenomenal at the 2-year-old St. Petersburg resort, formerly the dilapidated Hosanna Hotel. The place is booked every weekend and draws thousands on some Sunday afternoons. The owners, two former retirees from St. Petersburg, already have reached the revenue goal they had hoped to meet in year four.

Shortly after it opened, Suncoast was the cover story in Our World, a national gay and lesbian travel magazine, which called it the "West Coast Wonder."

"When we first drove up we said, "This is nice,' but we weren't really that wowed," said Iliana Viscavra, who came from Fort Lauderdale with her partner, Andrea Perry.

"Then once we got into the place, we were really surprised. It's huge. It's like its own little city for the gay community."

That is a large part of the appeal.

Spending a weekend here is like going to a gays-only island, a place where nobody is going to judge or hassle you and there are lots of other eligible people. It doesn't seem to matter that it sits on one of the busiest and ugliest roads in St. Petersburg -- especially since few hotel guests leave the four walls of Suncoast.

Tom Kiple and Lester Wolff, who are retired and gay, say opening Suncoast was not a lifelong ambition, just an idea that popped up one day as they discussed where to go to dinner. Neighbors in the Tropical Shores neighborhood of St. Petersburg, they were sitting on Kiple's deck five years ago overlooking Tampa Bay.

"Wouldn't it be nice to start a gay resort?" Wolff asked.

Wolff, 67, was a dentist. Kiple, 57, worked in the broadcasting industry. Neither was looking for a second career. But they talked about the idea all through dinner. With the help of a few gay Realtors, they began hunting for a spot for a gay resort.

They checked out property all over Florida, in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Daytona. After three years they settled on the place they now own, a seven-minute drive from their homes. They paid $3-million for it and quickly spent another $1-million on renovations.

The property, a former Holiday Inn transformed into a Hosanna Hotel, had been sorely neglected. Rooms were boarded up. The courtyard was covered in weeds.

"We said it was way too big, but it would work," Kiple said. "We're already running out of space."

The new resort joined a growing number of new businesses catering to gay and lesbian clientele, a desirable market because many gay couples have two incomes and no children and are well educated.

Retirement communities for gays and lesbians have sprung up in South Florida. G&L Internet Bank opened in Pensacola. Even corporations such as Miller Brewing Co. and Anheuser Busch, increasingly aware that gays are valuable customers, are adding marketing aimed at wooing them. The beer companies have added rainbow flags to everything from T-shirts to plastic cups. Seth Gordon, spokesman for G&L Bank, said just because a business is run by gays for gays does not mean it will succeed.

"Gay people won't go to a gay business if the service or product is inferior," he said. "If it is comparable or better, that becomes a tie-breaker."

For Kiple and Wolff, the location of their resort was a concern.

"When we decided on St. Petersburg, people said, it will never happen. It just won't work here," Kiple said. "But it's like the old business saying: If you have a good product people will come."

'Safe to be yourself'

The resort is a beehive of activity on the weekends. There's a pool, tennis courts and sand volleyball courts. The bars have themes. There's a piano bar and a men's leather bar. The Flamingo is the show bar. It features female impersonators, comedians -- often gays who have performed on HBO -- and cabarets. People can rent rooms from $49 to $89 a night, but Wolff and Kiple encourage people who aren't hotel guests to visit the resort as well.

Suncoast is built around a nicely landscaped courtyard and a mall of shops.

At the shops, guests can do everything from buy a computer to get a tattoo. There's also a place to rent videos with gay themes. There's a waiting list of businesses wanting to rent space. The resort's two restaurants serve everything from burgers on the cheap end to steaks on the expensive side.

Sundays the resort hires a band for its tiki bar and hosts a "T-dance." The dances, a Sunday tradition in the gay community, evolved from formal afternoon teas in Europe.

Terry Schaefer, who supervises computer technicians in St. Petersburg, is a Sunday regular. Recently he brought along Jon Ness, a former fraternity brother now finishing his Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Miami. The men, both 29, kept their sexual orientation a secret until they finished their undergraduate work.

They said they enjoy the freedom of a place like Suncoast.

"It's safe to be yourself," Schaefer said. "We're in our own little community. You can walk out to the mall and hold hands or show affection. Here you don't have to worry about people casting you an evil stare or talking about you."

An 'invasion'

Suncoast's opening was not completely without controversy.

When news first spread that a gay resort, billed as the largest in the nation, would soon open on 34th Street S, there was, perhaps predictably, a backlash.

Cars in the neighborhood were papered with fliers mentioning the controversy in Orlando over Gay Days at Disney.

"WHILE ALL EYES WERE FOCUSED ON THE STRUGGLE IN ORLANDO, AN INVASION OCCURRED IN OUR OWN BACK YARD!!!" the flier began. The fliers urged people to call City Hall to voice their opposition.

Community activist Marva Dennard was among those concerned about the business, which she feels is incompatible with her neighborhood. "At this point things are quiet, but we don't want to let anyone in the community think we're asleep," Dennard said. "We're still watching it."

Wolff, the past chairman of the city's beautification committee and current member of the arts advisory committee, and Kiple said they have heard few complaints.

Most people are glad that they've renovated a former eyesore and generated another source of taxes for the city. Their straight friends, they said, are curious about the place.

"I run into people and they tell me they have been thinking about just stopping by to see what's here," Wolff said.

Area businesses and St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer also have been supportive, he said. The mayor said he and others believe it is one of the best things to happen to 34th Street S, a stretch that recently began getting a face lift. The city has added landscaping in the area, and new businesses, including an Eckerd drugstore, are starting to appear.

"We had a meeting of the (34th Street Business Association) about two months ago to talk about conditions there," Fischer said. "The gist of the meeting was that before Suncoast opened, the motel (there) had been the subject of many, many police calls and crime. Since Suncoast opened, there were virtually no police calls."

For Suncoast, one small struggle has been trying to persuade the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau to note in its brochure that the resort caters to gays and lesbians. Carole A. Ketterhagen of the bureau said the brochure isn't formatted to describe the clientele properties serve. The brochure listing is free.

Wolff said he doesn't want the resort listed unless the listing notes that the Suncoast Resort caters to gays because people who aren't gay might unknowingly plan a vacation there and wind up feeling out of place.

"We don't discriminate. It doesn't matter if a person is gay or straight," he said. "But we would hate for someone to book a vacation here without knowing."

For those who know what Suncoast is, the place is ideal.

Ness, who has now come two Sundays in a row, and Schaefer said St. Petersburg is more laid back than Miami and Orlando. They had recently been in Orlando and had to suffer through the traffic and the crowds.

"People are just more relaxed here," said Ness, who took time off from working on his dissertation at the University of Miami to return for another Sunday. He said he was shocked to find such a fun place on the Gulf Coast.

"This coast gets a bad rap -- that it's all old, boring people," Ness said.

Perry and Viscavra, of Fort Lauderdale, said the advantage to Suncoast is that the gays and lesbians are all in one place.

"In Fort Lauderdale there are a lot of places to go," Viscavra said. "But here, this is the place to come, so there's a certain amount of energy about it."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.