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For a dedicated traveler, Nova 535’s Michael Scott Novilla is a real homebody

Bill DeYoung

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Michael Scott Novilla at Giza, Egypt. The longtime world traveler always, ALWAYS comes back to his hometown. "Over time," he says. "St. Pete has grown into the kind of city where there’s a very robust dining and nightlife experience downtown, we’ve got the sports teams. We’ve grown into the kind of city that has everything, but we don’t have the congestion and smog – yet – that you would get in Chicago, New York, L.A. And people here are more real." All photos provided.

It should come as no surprise that Michael Scott Novilla, St. Petersburg’s unofficial Party King, has a serious work ethic.

“I have two modes, Play Mike and Work Mike,” says the owner/operator of the hugely successful event space Nova 535. “I love to have fun, I’m very sarcastic and silly, love to goof around. But when it comes to work I kind of switch gears – I still have a lot of fun, but it’s about getting the job done. Because it’s all about the customer in the end.”

The customer always comes first at Novaween, the space’s annual full-costume Halloween bash. Novilla is in the final planning stages of the 15th annual public party, taking place Saturday, Oct. 30. It’s one of the city’s highly anticipated “events of the season.”

Novilla wears a lot of hats. The St. Pete native bought, renovated and leased more than 100 buildings, many of them historic, before launching Nova in 2008. He is also the creator of the Entrepreneur Social Club, a network of business people who meet every Thursday (usually at Nova) to dine, drink, meet, greet and hatch collaborative ideas. He also founded the website downtownstpete.com.

Oh, and he likes to travel. A lot. To date, Michael Novilla has visited 92 countries on six continents. He’s working on his second book, the story of a 416-day trek through Asia, Africa and the Middle East (his first book, It’s 5 a.m., Go Home, was a humorous event-planning guide).

He had an “idyllic” childhood, Novilla says, on the west side of St. Petersburg, so after graduating from the University of South Florida with an MBA in Finance, Economics and International Business, he had little desire to leave the ol’ hometown for greener pastures.

There was just one thing.

“My brain needs new experiences,” he explains. “I’ve seen every crack and crevice here in Tampa/St. Pete/Clearwater over the years – and then it’s ‘OK, what’s over here?’ I like new stuff. I read a lot of science fiction. So really, ‘what’s new’ is kind of like my brain food.”

The logic played out like this: “Once you got older and you had a little bit of money, and a little bit of freedom, why not go to France or wherever?”

And so he did. Again and again. Along the way, after discovering he was good at real estate investments he built a portfolio of properties. “At one point,” he reflects, “I had 100 apartments, and they were all in Crescent Lake. So I could walk to all of them. Whereas if you have one in Clearwater, one here and one there, you’re driving around all day. I don’t want to spend all day in traffic. So the plan was to keep them as close together as possible.”

Wherever his travels took him, however big his business grew, Novilla was determined to keep his roots firmly in St. Petersburg ground.

“I love St. Pete. It’s kind of like your favorite record. Your favorite meal. No matter how much you love it, you need more. I haven’t found another city that I love as much, but I have found some cities that I only left because my visa ran out. I probably would have stayed longer in Hanoi, for example. Other than the air pollution, it was fantastic. Capetown in South Africa is fantastic.

“But here, there’s family and friends. My business is here. The weather here is great. There’s a lot of reasons to come home. You can do stuff online, but when you have real friends, you need to see them in the meet space.”

The “meet space” idea became Nova 535. In 2005, Novilla bought 535 Dr. M.L.K. Jr Street North, which had been operating as a dog kennel and grooming salon called Pet Planet.

The cavernous facility, originating in 1920 as Slap Happy’s Five-and-Dime, underwent a $3M, top-to-bottom renovation, using Michael Novilla’s own fives-and-dimes.

He did it, he says, “because I was bored. The thinking was, for 20 years I had the hundred apartments … I could create an art gallery/lounge/event/space. It would add some cool to the portfolio. I realized there wasn’t one in the city, a unique venue. So I wanted to do it for that reason. I like art, I like music, I like to party, so I wanted to put all that together.”

So far, so good. But Nova 535 was to become a game-changer.

“When I took all my savings and bought the building, it was right when the crash happened and the banks pulled all the financing,” Novilla says. “I had to decide: Keep Nova or keep all the apartments?

“I was upside down at that point, because I took a risk on this, although it was a smart risk.”

With banks panicking left and right, calling in loans and rescinding credit lines, he sold all the apartments. And dedicated himself to the hospitality industry.

From the Frequently Asked Questions section of the venue’s website:

INSIDE: DOWNSTAIRS is 220 seated with dance floor, 260 seated for dining, 300 seated for ceremonies, 350 standing for cocktail parties. UPSTAIRS is 80 seated for dining or 125 standing for cocktail parties. INSIDE TOTAL: is 340 seated for dining, 380 seated for ceremonies, 475 standing for cocktail parties. Our OUTDOOR COURTYARD adds 150 seated for dining, 250 seated for ceremonies, 300 standing for cocktail parties, giving a TOTAL VENUE CAPACITY of 490 seated or dining or 775 standing for cocktails.

Novilla in “Novaween” mode.

And then there’s Novaween. After a seriously muted 2020 edition (kept on the down-low because of Covid numbers), he’s pulling out all the stops for the Oct. 30 bash: There’ll be aerialists, “fire shows,” CRY Wheels, Tarot card readings, music from DJ Fresh, go-go dancers … and, as always, an elaborate costume party. Tickets available here.

Did we mention that no one under 21 will be admitted?

“My friends are very eclectic,” says Novilla, who will emcee the event. “They go from A to zinc. But they like to have fun. You know, we all work too hard, all of us. And Halloween’s a great time to put on a mask, and just act silly, blow some steam off.”

He’s especially enthused about seeing so many familiar faces, including married couples who’ve only missed a party or two because of pesky things like childbirth. Some started coming to his epic Halloween soirees in the very beginning.

For a “people person” like Michael Novilla, that means fun around every corner. “And so you know the audience and the guests who are there,” he says. “It’s not just a bunch of strangers. That’s what is really cool about it.”

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    Mark Olson

    October 17, 2021at8:24 am

    I have known Michael for many many years and he is everything this article says, more than that, he’s a great guy with a great vision and the Best venue!!! I always look forward to seeing him at work or play. If you haven’t been to the NOVA 535 you really need to check it out! It’s an experience!!!

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