Va. Beach Cavalier developer unfazed by criticism

Va. Beach Cavalier developer unfazed by criticism

Va. Beach Cavalier developer unfazed by criticism

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Associated Press

Posted on June 24, 2013 at 10:32 AM

Updated Monday, Jun 24 at 10:33 AM

VIRGINIA BEACH(AP) -- Developer Bruce Thompson ducked into the dimly lit hotel martini bar.
 
"This is where we work out our deals, in dark back rooms," he said Friday, sitting down on a sleek leather couch. "Everything you've heard is true."
 
It was the slightly defensive joke of a man who knows the rap against him but believes it's undeserved.
 
Yes, he's an aggressive businessman. Thompson, 61, won't apologize for that. "We go deer hunting with Uzis," he said. "We're in the game to win."
 
His company, Gold Key/PHR Hotels & Resorts, owns seven Oceanfront hotels and timeshare resorts -- with an eighth under construction -- and a handful of restaurants. His businesses are upscale, lavishly landscaped with flowers, sea grasses, palms and outdoor fire pits.
 
Yes, he's received city support for two projects -- the 31st Street Hilton and a mixed-use project on Laskin Road -- and is seeking $18 million for a third, and perhaps his most ambitious: the renovation of the historic Cavalier Hotel and surrounding properties. Thompson is expected to close on the $35.1 million deal by July 22.
 
His vision for the estimated $259 million project includes transforming the 1927 hotel into a "five-star" experience, with a spa, a wedding chapel and perhaps a celebrity chef. A public hearing on the city's contribution is scheduled Tuesday, with a City Council vote set July 2.
 
What Thompson says he doesn't understand is the outcry when he steps up for projects city officials say they want and on which they are willing to spend money.
 
"Everybody had the same information and opportunity to see the vision the city has," he said of The Cavalier deal. "So we did it, and what happens? I'm criticized."
 
Not far from the martini bar, guests at Thompson's privately financed Ocean Beach Club on 34th Street lounged around a shimmering pool on chairs with cushions as thick as mattresses. Kids frolicked in a shaded splash park.
 
Competitors might gripe, Thompson said, "But what am I supposed do? Not build projects like this?"
 
In the early 2000s, Thompson became a lightning rod for criticism when the city selected his plan for a Hilton hotel on 31st Street, an area used as a park.
 
Preservationists came out against the hotel, and 58 percent of voters supported a nonbinding referendum to keep the land a park - a path the City Council chose not to follow.
 
In 2003, Thompson struck a deal to build the hotel. The city put nearly $32 million into the $79 million project for a parking garage, park and land.
 
The Hilton has been a huge success, city officials say, generating about $3.5 million annually in city tax revenue, according to the most recent analysis. They say the Hilton was a catalyst for tourism development at the Oceanfront and proved Virginia Beach could attract tourists willing to spend more.
 
"His projects are a huge lift for the Oceanfront," said Steve Herbert, the city's chief development officer. "He's operating at the highest level of quality and design."
 
While Thompson's projects aren't the only reason, the average family income of Virginia Beach tourists has increased in the past five years, to $100,640 from $85,928, according to city surveys.
 
"He's upgraded the product," said Jim Ricketts, the city's tourism director. "He's had an impact. There's no question about it."
 
Some suspect Thompson is favored politically.
 
"He seems to have an inside track on a lot of things, that's for sure," said Kary Karageorge, part owner of an Oceanfront Hampton Inn. "But he does a lot of good. I give Bruce credit. Everything he does, he does first class."
 
Thompson and Gold Key have given more than $100,000 to local and state candidates in the past decade, including Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms and Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
 
"People think there's this backroom relationship between Bruce, the council, the mayor and the city manager," said Joe Taylor, president and CEO of Taylor's Do-It Center and longtime Oceanfront resident. "I think it's a great relationship that's a win-win whenever they get together on a project."
 
Part of Thompson's success is finding common ground with city officials on urban design principles, such as pedestrian-friendly streets, landscaping and open-air dining.
 
On Thursday, a gathering celebrated the opening of Thompson's newest venture, 31Ocean, a $72 million mixed-use project anchoring the redesign of the Laskin Road corridor to the Oceanfront. The city is spending about $40 million on the roads, including a traffic circle and utilities.
 
As usual, Thompson's design drew compliments.
 
"Nice colors," said Councilman Glenn Davis, who showed up for the event. "Bright and airy."
 
Thompson likes to think big.
 
But he notices small things, too.
 
While walking through Big Italy, his trio of connected restaurants on Atlantic Avenue, Thompson was pointing out how each restaurant has its own mood when he realized one, Cafe Amarino, was quiet.
 
"Where's the music?" he asked a staffer behind the gelato counter.
 
Music instantly started.
 
"Too loud," he said, making a gesture of quiet until it reached his preferred level.
 
Down the street at Catch 31, the restaurant attached to the Hilton, Thompson eyed a salad.
 
"That lettuce doesn't look very green, does it?" he said.
 
An empty table with dirty dishes caught his eye.
 
"When you get a chance, get someone to bus those tables," he told a manager.
 
As for Thompson's newest venture, he said he visits The Cavalier site every day for inspiration. He plans to spend at least $40 million to renovate the old hotel. The goal, he said, is to make it a cross between The Inn at Little Washington in Northern Virginia and the historic Jefferson Hotel in Richmond.
 
While restoring The Cavalier, he'll probably tear down its newer companion hotel across Atlantic Avenue to have a clean slate to develop the prime Oceanfront property.
 
"It will rival anything in the mid-Atlantic," he said.

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