When Ulele opens in Tampa Heights, one of the downtown districts of Tampa, Florida, next week, it will ignite a spark the neighborhood hasn’t seen in decades.
At least, that’s the hope of Richard Gonzmart, whose restaurant is a passion project a decade in the making. Serving Native-inspired foods, Ulele will open in the refurbished 1903 water pump station that sits about 400 yards north of Tampa's downtown, in an otherwise abandoned, past-its-prime neighborhood.
While many restaurant owners talk of firing up their communities, Gonzmart's $5 million eatery, which opens Aug. 26, has taken the ambition a step further: It spurred Tampa's city council and Mayor Bob Buckhorn to reinvest in the area, rolling out a $7 million, five-acre park next to Ulele as part of the renaissance.
"It's more than just a restaurant," says Gonzmart, the fourth-generation owner and president of the Columbia Restaurant Group, which has seven Columbia restaurant and cafés in Florida. "I want it to be an icon, something people will think turned the tables for the positive in Tampa Heights."
Within walking distance of Ulele is a high school for last-chance teenagers who have been thrown out of other schools. Approximately 85 percent of the young women there are mothers, Gonzmart says. He plans to extend the school's hospitality program by offering internships at Columbia restaurants. His other efforts to improve the community include providing the kitchen for a nearby church that is being converted into a youth center, and partnering with an organization that helps teenagers with autism. Gonzmart says some of his best employees have been young people with autism.
Empowering these groups of people, Gonzmart is reinvesting in the community; by making these positive changes, he says in the long term, there will be more to visit in Tampa Heights beyond Ulele.
"It'll be, initially, a destination restaurant," explains Michael Kilgore, chief marketing officer for the Columbia Restaurant Group. "It's only 400 yards from downtown, so we're not isolated, but it's just not a place that people go. But they will come here and we think we'll help lead the revitalization of this area. Houses will go in, businesses will go in, other restaurants will go in."
Already, the aforementioned refurbished park, which had a ribbon-cutting Aug. 13, is adding color to Tampa Heights. It has a dog park, outdoor arena for concerts, a playground, a gazebo, and a docking area. A grant, also inspired by Gonzmart's $5 million investment, has already restored the spring of the Hillsborough River that lies adjacent to the property. About two months ago, within days of having the spring cleansed, manatees came splashing in. They usually flow through from January through April, avoiding the warm months, yet they popped out in mid-summer, Gonzmart says, voice soft and full of awe.
From 1903 to 2014
The brick warehouse Ulele now occupies acted as Tampa's third pumping station, operating from 1903 through the 1920s. Tampa Heights developed around the station, acting as the first subdivision in Tampa, Kilgore says. "It was sort of a prestigious place to live for a while," he explains, "although it's undergone some hard times, over the last 30 or 40 years."
Gonzmart grew up within blocks of the pumping station, which has also acted as a public TV station and housed the bomb squad over the years. The hospital Gonzmart was born in is three blocks from the property, and the house he grew up in is just a half-mile from there. He has fond memories of coming to see the little streams and minnows with his grandfather.
Like all regions, Tampa Heights experienced its economic peaks and valleys. "The beautiful homes fell into disrepair and suffered,” Gonzmart says. “The (Ulele) building was in terrible shape. It was only a quarter mile to the north of the performing arts center. I had the vision that if I did this deal with the city, development would take place."
Tampa's mayor Bob Buckhorn put out a request for proposal a few years back that Gonzmart ultimately won through an open bidding process. Refurbishment of the restaurant began two years ago. Part of Gonzmart's $5 million investment went to preserving the historical integrity of the building. He'd entertained a vision for years to create an eatery honoring Native Americans, the land they lived on, the food they ate.