Robert Blackmon immediately noticed that Harder Hall, Sebring’s historic Mediterranean-style pink hotel, bore a striking resemblance to St. Petersburg’s Vinoy Resort and Golf Club.
The former St. Petersburg City Council member and his family bought the derelict Harder Hall – opened in 1925 and shuttered in 1986 – in September 2022. During the ongoing renovation process, Blackmon noticed other parallels between the small city and St. Pete.
Located in Highlands County in south-central Florida, Sebring is about 100 miles slightly southwest of St. Petersburg.
Despite their city’s much smaller population, Sebring officials anticipate and hope to facilitate new growth as people seek less expensive housing away from flood and hurricane-prone coasts. A group, at Blackmon’s request, explored the Sunshine City with the help of local leaders Thursday to gain potential redevelopment insights.
“St. Pete has basically become a model city for all the positive growth we’ve had under multiple political administrations,” Blackmon said. “Everyone’s worked together to make us what we are today. And it’s good for Sebring because it shows that they’re growing and trying to get on the map.”
The former mayoral candidate stressed that Thursday’s full itinerary was not “a St. Pete tour.” Instead, it was meant to showcase similar assets shared by the two communities to a Sebring city council member, its city administrator and the Community Redevelopment Agency’s (CRA) executive director and board chair.
Kristie Vazquez, executive director of the CRA, believes Sebring’s historic downtown is on the cusp of a St. Pete-esque resurgence and the CRA plans to emulate some of that success.
“That’s our biggest takeaway,” Vazquez added. “That was our whole goal in coming over here – how we could model some of the same things with some of the assets we have in our downtown.”
While St. Petersburg is decidedly more metropolitan than Sebring, she realized more parallels than anticipated. Those included the St. Pete Pier District and the Floridian Social Club, formerly the historic State Theatre.
Downtown Sebring borders Lake Jackson, and city officials want to upgrade its fishing pier and turn the area into a destination. While the CRA has prioritized transforming the waterfront since the mid-1990s, Vazquez said it is still “hugely underutilized.”
Her organization is now updating design plans and improving below-ground infrastructure, and she believes lessons learned in St. Pete will reduce the learning curve. Blackmon also noted Sebring once had a 1920s Mediterranean-style facility “just like the original St. Pete ‘Million Dollar Pier.’”
While project scale and budgets vary dramatically, Vazquez said the community use and ability to drive people to Sebring’s downtown core are quite similar. She also hopes Thursday marked the start of an ongoing relationship between the two cities.
“It’s always good to see somewhere that has been successful,” Vazquez said. “The lessons that have been learned in St. Pete and the things that have worked and the model they have here just expedites the process for us.”
The group toured the Vinoy, which all agreed resembled Blackmon’s Harder Hall in its prime. He noted that the iconic St. Pete facility also shuttered for many years, and its reopening in helped spark the city’s renaissance.
Like the Vinoy, he plans to allow residents to utilize Harder Hall’s facilities. Sebring City Administrator Scott Noethlich said Blackmon could potentially create package deals with the city-owned golf course.
“You almost have to take a look at it and say, ‘Wow, this is very similar,” Noethlich added. “It obviously needs a lot of work, but it definitely has the potential.”
The first stop was the St. Pete Shuffleboard Club. Blackmon credited the facility for bringing new energy to downtown in 2006, something Sebring officials also hope to accomplish.
City Councilmember Roland Bishop noted Sebring also has an expansive shuffleboard community and said his group would “for sure” apply things they learned on the trip back home.
“Probably the biggest thing so far is marketing the shuffleboard courts to a younger crowd,” Bishop said. “I think it’s probably more popular than we realize among younger people. The older generation, I think, are moving towards pickleball.”
Sebring officials also hope to redevelop their downtown historic theater, which opened in 1923. Floridian Social Club owner Kevin Chadwick led a tour of his facility, originally built in 1925.
The group discussed operations at length, as the physical aspects and history surrounding the two venues are nearly identical.
Unlike most of Thursday’s stops, Noethlich noted Sebring’s theater is the same size as the Floridian. Its chamber of commerce is exploring acquiring the property from private owners who, they allege, have mismanaged the venue and lost money.
“That’s not surprising,” Chadwick said. “There’s a fine line on how to do it right.”
Blackmon, and the visiting city leaders, think the trip will help them avoid those pitfalls. Sebring’s core consists of mostly old, one-to-four-story buildings, and Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, provided a tour of the rapidly evolving EDGE District to conclude the tour.
Blackmon said historic buildings and cultural tourism attracts new residents and visitors, which Harder Hall and Sebring’s downtown provides. He added that St. Pete could provide a replicable blueprint.
“I feel like I’m Marty McFly from Back to the Future,” Blackmon said. “I want to show everybody that they’re facing some of the same issues we’ve faced over the last zero to 20 years. See what we’ve done, and take what you like and leave what you don’t.”