Blake Investment Partners has worked on development projects in St. Petersburg since the early 2000s.
Now, founder and CEO Blake Whitney Thompson has his sights set on what city officials are calling a generational project — redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site.
“There are a lot of people with money and there are a lot of people that would love to do a project like this. That said, I think those people should be held to the St. Pete standard,” said Thompson, a St. Petersburg native who calls the city a “special place.”
The city put out a request for proposals in July but isn’t likely to name a developer for the Trop site until late 2021. Until then, Thompson has plenty of other projects on his plate.
He owns the former Masonic temple at 114 4th St. S., where he says he’s likely to build an apartment tower because renovation isn’t feasible. He’s part of a group that just closed on the purchase of property at 256 2nd St. N., although there are no plans for that site right now.
Thompson owns one historic building, the Veillard House on Fourth Avenue North where Blake Investment Partners is headquartered. He owns another structure in line to become an historic landmark, the building at 1130 Central Ave. that houses Bodega, a popular Latin restaurant.
Thompson and his stepbrother, Ryan Griffin, an attorney at Johnson Pope, own Mandarin Hide, a bar at 231 Central Ave., and Trophy Fish, a fresh fish restaurant at 2060 Central Ave.
Thompson also is talking with other local business leaders who are considering launching a new bank in St. Petersburg.
And that’s just the local projects. Blake Investment Partners, a real estate and private equity firm, operates in seven states and in cities including Charlotte, Raleigh, Charleston, Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville and Jacksonville.
“What’s special about the business is it gives me the ability to invest in St. Pete. I learn from all these other markets. It’s great to learn new development techniques, and what’s hip and trendy in Atlanta and in Raleigh, and bring those ideas back to St. Pete,” Thompson said.
Fabric of the community
Thompson grew up in St. Petersburg and started working in real estate here 19 years ago. He moved to California for five years, but returned to St. Pete in 2015 because the city meets his “four layer” test. It’s on the water, near an international airport, located in a no-income tax state and has charm and quality of life.
“St. Pete is an easy filter city,” he said. “You’re in the most tax advantageous place, living on the beach and with access to the world through the airport. And, on top of it all, the big decision-maker is culture. That’s a qualitative thing, but I think that’s why St. Pete is booming.”
St. Petersburg’s independent businesses and tight-knit downtown community have separated it from other cities that are filled with big box stores and corporate chains, many of which have filed for bankruptcy since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There’s also a lot of authenticity in St. Petersburg, and that’s the vibe Thompson hopes to preserve if he is selected as developer at the Trop site.
“I think my age and experience and our team, being on the ground here in St. Pete, and our capitalization should make us one of the real contenders at the table,” Thompson said.
Thompson said he doesn’t want it be a divisive project, but rather one that unifies the city. He hopes to work with the Tampa Bay Rays on the development.
Mayor Rick Kriseman expects to have a deal with a developer by the end of 2021, just before he leaves office in January 2022, but Thompson said the deal should not be hurried.
“If people say monetize this thing as fast as possible, consequences be damned, maybe I’m not your developer,” Thompson said. “But if we’re talking about representing what I think the fabric of the town is, and being thoughtful and careful, with parks and open space and things people would want to see when they come to Florida … I think this is our opportunity to do something where people want to see meaningful things.”
Thompson said he likes the idea of turning something old into something new, or adaptive reuse. St. Petersburg’s infrastructure is best suited to that, he said.
“Before we build everything out to the max and disregard adaptive reuse, we should look at the maximum capacity of this town. What makes people complain and not like a town is when you overbuild it,” he said.
St. Pete’s land development regulations were designed to incentivize adaptive reuse, he said. At the same time, it doesn’t strain the infrastructure.
“I’m 100 percent pro development but it has to be governed,” Thompson said.
He had hoped to bring adaptive reuse to the city’s Municipal Services Center. Blake Investment Partners was one of five firms that responded to the city’s request for proposals for that facility at Central Avenue and 4th Street North. Earlier this month, city officials narrowed the choice to two finalists. Blake Investment Group was not one of them.
Thompson wanted to renovate the former Masonic lodge, a 12,000-square foot building constructed in 1955. He bought it in 2017 and considered various uses for it, including an event hall, but that changed after a visit from the fire marshal.
“That building was an assembly hall for the Masons in the 1960s and ’70s, and there were hundreds of people that got together there. But when you go to renovate it you have to bring it up to code and now all of a sudden that building that was fine before I became the owner now has to have millions of dollars in upgrades to keep doing what it was doing,” Thompson said.
Thompson said he’s now looking at building a 25-story apartment complex on the site. The project he has in mind would incorporate some the behavior changes resulting from Covid-19.
It would be designed for people who work from home or have guests who don’t want to stay in a hotel. Each unit might also be equipped with its own workout equipment, since people are averse to going to gyms, as well as touchless protocols.
“I’d like to be the first one to build a building with these pathogen-friendly features,” he said.
Thompson also has his eye on a potential redevelopment on the north side of downtown. His company is an equal partner in Ping Pong Partners, which bought the property at 256 2nd St. N. for $1.54 million in a deal that closed Sept. 16, according to a deed filed with Pinellas County. Steve Gianfilippo, owner of Station House, is manager of Ping Pong Partners, according to corporate records. The site is currently leased to Fit2Run, a retail store, and Thompson said there are no specific plans for the property right now.
Covid-19 has changed the real estate world, Thompson said.
“I think the real estate world is going to be different but it’s going to be good. In some ways this bump in the market has slowed everyone down a little bit and I think that’s a good thing. There were people overpaying and moving too fast, so I think this bump will keep lenders from getting hurt and over-extending. It was probably a healthy check on where we are,” Thompson said.
One of Thompson’s next potential projects is a new bank. There’s only one community bank headquartered in St. Petersburg, First Home Bank. The Payroll Protection Program, part of the federal CARES Act and intended to provide an incentive for small businesses to keep workers on their payrolls, showed there is a need for more community banks, Thompson said.
“When PPP happened, everyone learned that having a local banker was better than not having a local banker. That’s where a lot of PPP originations happened, with your local banker. It reinforces why we need local bankers and a good local bank,” he said.
While real estate is lucrative, it all comes down to people, Thompson said.
“This market is very responsive to people who see St. Pete as something special.”