It’s all about location.
At least that’s what developer Chuck Prather says of his decision to turn an old hotel on St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive Northeast into a swanky, hip hotel that looks like it jumped off the pages of a glossy magazine.
There’s no doubt the Birchwood Inn is in an A+ location. With views of Tampa Bay, it is in an area of downtown St. Petersburg that is home to multimillion-dollar condos and the Renaissance Vinoy Resort.
But Prather, 52, is also chasing a dream.
After developing build-to-suit projects for the federal government for about 20 years, a renovation of a historic building was more akin to Prather’s dream of one day developing and owning an exotic resort.
“When I heard it was for sale, I knew I had to have it,” Prather says of the former Grayl’s Hotel that he bought for $1.8 million from Cornerstone Bank in May 2011.
Last month, Prather opened the Birchwood Inn, an 18-room boutique hotel with a rooftop bar called The Canopy, following extensive renovations and the addition of two floors. Of the original building, only the shell remains today.
Prather declined to say how much the renovations cost other than it was more than the $6 million he’d budgeted. Pinellas County official records show he obtained a $6.8 million mortgage on the hotel from C1 Bank.
A native of Miami, Prather grew up in Tampa and moved to St. Petersburg about 20 years ago. His wife, Dr. Kathy Reilly Prather, is from a family with deep roots in Pinellas County. Her brother Paul Reilly is CEO of Raymond James Financial Inc. and another brother Michael Reilly is the team physician for the Tampa Bay Rays.
When Prather heard that the hotel, built in 1924, was being sold at foreclosure, he tried to buy it through the court’s online bid system. He knew within seconds he’d lost. Turns out the lender won by $50,000. Prather was at Cornerstone Bank’s office that afternoon making a deal.
For the renovation, he turned to business partners he’d worked with many years, including architect Dave Maddux of the Arcus Group in Cleveland and Mike Profozich of Ed Taylor Construction in Tampa. The Birchwood’s interior architectural finishes were designed by Jim Santamour of Urban Design Studio in Tampa.
“It’s important to hire the best and to listen to them,” Prather says. “So many developers have large egos. You have to listen to the people you hire.”
Prather obtained a historic building designation, which was key for several reasons, including the property’s lack of on-site parking and the zero setbacks. He also received some tax advantages.
The redevelopment was a challenge from the beginning. As in all historic preservation projects, there were many unknowns. There were no blueprints.
Eventually the redevelopment team decided the entire building, other than the shell, from the roof down had to be demolished by hand. New outside walls were erected inside the original exterior walls to support them.
“There was a collective sigh of relief when the walls went up,” says Mark Weaver, a vice president at Ed Taylor Construction.
The original crystal door knobs couldn’t remain. They didn’t comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. But Prather refused to part with them. They now decorate the hotel’s lobby.
The boutique hotel has created a buzz in its first month and is usually full on the weekends. Rooms fetch between $180 and $250 a night during the week, and weekend rates start at $215 a night.
Prather says he has found himself in roles he hadn’t expected in running a hotel, restaurant and bar with more than 130 employees.
On weekend nights, a long line forms for entrance to the Canopy because it is at capacity with 291 people.
He has heard guests grumble that he’s only trying to create an illusion of exclusivity for the rooftop bar.
He shakes his head.
He has also received hate mail for making the hotel a no-smoking facility after patrons burned more than 50 holes in the expansive first-floor green canopy by flipping butts from the rooftop bar.
Would he do it again?
“I don’t know if I could find another piece of property as good as this,” he says.
Don’t look for a for sale sign at the Birchwood Inn.
Prather says it’s a “long-term hold.”