We’re asking thought leaders, business people and creatives to talk about 2021, and give us catalyzing ideas for making St. Pete a better place to live in what will surely be a changed – and charged – post-Covid world. What should our city look like? What are their hopes, their plans, their problem-solving ideas? This is Catalyze 2021.
Like everyone with diverse business interests, Bill Edwards felt the ground shake under his feet with the unwelcome arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. At Sundial, the Mahaffey Theater and the Club at Treasure Island, among others, the buck stops squarely at the CEO of the Edwards Group.
Covid-19, he said, has “caused a lot of havoc in business. Everything I have is shut down, which amazes me because I’m still employing 150 people.”
As the man at the top of the food chain, he feels responsible for them.
“I’ve never, in all the years I’ve been alive, ever imagined something like this could happen,” Edwards reflected. “When you’re running a business, and you’re trying to keep people employed – you’re trying to find money to keep them employed, even though there’s no business – it goes beyond the employee-employer relationship.
“It’s a big responsibility to say ‘Gee I’m sorry, I know you’ve got kids, but I can’t give you the groceries you were gonna get, because I can’t keep you employed.’ We did everything from the PPP loans to try to keep the employees going, and so forth. And some of that worked, and some of it didn’t because it was such an unprecedented situation. The government was overwhelmed. I’m still waiting on some stuff.”
For Edwards, the “year that wasn’t” actually began in November, 2019, when Armature Works president Frank Scalfaro and developer Chas Bruck, as St. Pete Market LLC, signed a redevelopment and leasing deal for a section of Sundial, the open-air shopping and entertainment center Edwards owns on 2nd Avenue N. He calls the arrangement a “fatal mistake” on his part.
The deal called for an overhaul of the space occupied by Locale Market, a Sundial anchor store. “They took all our equipment out, they gutted it … and then they disappeared,” Edwards said. “Covid was their reasoning, but when I look at it now, the restaurants that we have in our shopping center are doing fairly well. I was very surprised at how much more business they were doing than I thought they would do.
“People want to get out. They want to get a meal. They’re socially distanced, they’re following the guidelines.
“We get ready for a new, wonderful re-opening of something that was going to be better, and now we’ve got an empty building. That company’s not going to honor their obligations, but I’ve still got to honor my obligations, which is to have a full shopping center.”
In October, Edwards filed suit in Hillsborough County against St. Pete Market LLC for purposefully delaying construction, and defaulting on a lease agreement.
Meanwhile, about half of Sundial’s merchants are open for business. The AMC movie theaters – another anchor – are slowly coming back, with social distancing guidelines in place.
Last week, he closed the members-only Club at Treasure Island. “I tried to keep it open,” Edwards explained. “I tried to do it with social distancing. No one came inside. As long as we had waterside dining, we had some people coming. Enough to keep people employed.”
Now that the weather has taken a turn for the chilly, members quite understandably don’t want to sit outside. He even tried opening the Club to the public; that didn’t help.
The closure, Edwards insisted, is not permanent.
“There’s no permanence to any of this,” he said. “But at this moment, when you’re bleeding red ink everywhere, and there’s no money coming in … there’s only so much money in the world before you have to look at your own situation and say ‘Look, my kids deserve to go to college,’ things like that.
“And what I’m doing is giving their college money up, and losing money in the process. It just got to a point where I had to make some very hard decisions.”
Although the Florida Orchestra began presenting low-occupancy, socially-distanced concerts at the Mahaffey Theater in October, and Edwards-presented shows are creeping back onto the schedule using similar guidelines, the fact that the high-end performing arts venue is just sitting there, mostly empty, eats at him.
“Believe me, I’d like to put on a great concert tomorrow night,” Edwards said. “Because music soothes your soul, you know?
“But I don’t want to be the poster boy for somebody getting sick in my theater. The Mahaffey’s a very special place, and I want to keep it that way. It’s easy to get in trouble and hard to get out of it.”
And so life goes on. Edwards, who recently sold one of his Snell Island homes, is enthused that growth projections are high for St. Pete in 2021. “So I’m thinking if we can just get this under control, and get back to work, by 2023 is when we’ll be back, hopefully, to normal.”