ST. PETE BEACH — It's hard to remember the last time city officials attended a hotel opening in this south Pinellas County beach town.
At a ribbon cutting Wednesday for the chic new Hotel Zamora, some said the last lodging in St. Pete Beach went up 20 years ago; others said it had been 30.
In the past decade, a bitter legal battle over the city's comprehensive development plan has kept almost all investors far away, despite the city's growing reputation as a trendy tourism spot.
It's doubtful the opponents of big resort construction were worried especially about this modestly-sized hotel, built in a complementary style to the historic Don CeSar's Mediterranean architecture that can be seen from most rooms across the street on Gulf Boulevard.
It's also doubtful, with litigation over the city's building rules still pending, that Hotel Zamora's opening instantly will inaugurate a new era of development in St. Pete Beach.
But the addition of 72 stylish, luxurious hotel rooms with upscale dining and a rooftop bar open to the public is surely a good sign for local tourism, city leaders said.
“This is a true turning point for the city of St. Pete Beach,” Mayor Maria Lowe said.
“This hotel in particular is a demonstration of going from a state of foreclosure and disrepair to a state of grandeur.”
The site on the Intracoastal Waterway at 3701 Gulf Blvd. had been an empty shell for several years, like so many other well-intended projects started before the recession.
With the help of committed, local investors and an economy on the upswing, work began anew over the past year to transform the plain box into a white-washed “palace” inspired by the Romanesque architecture of Spain's Zamora province.
Hotel Zamora joins a group of well-reviewed boutique properties spread out across the United States, Caribbean, South America and Portugal run by Coral Gables-based Trust Hospitality.
“We have hotels around the world and we have for years wanted to be in this neighborhood, for years,” Trust Hospitality CEO Richard Millard said.
Staff on Wednesday offered tours to local officials and hoteliers, as well as representatives from the Florida Legislature, including Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole.
They got a peek at luxury suites overlooking both the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal Waterway, all well-appointed with modern furnishings, and a rooftop bar that's scheduled to open in July with 360 degree views of the water, downtown St. Petersburg and the Sunshine Skyway in the distance.
Rooms starting around $250 a night will be available as of this weekend, while the second-floor restaurant, Castile, featuring tapas and other Spanish fare, already is open for business.
The hotel also has a pool, banquet rooms for small weddings and boat slips that will be available to guests and to transient boaters who want to dock for a meal at the restaurant.
With its distinct style and flare for the artistic – lush photos of Spanish dancers in each room – the Zamora demonstrates the broadening appeal of St. Pete Beach, local business leaders say.
“The significance of having not only a hotel, but a boutique hotel, open up is it shows how attractive our destination is for investors, business owners and restaurateurs,” said Robin Sollie, head of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce.
That may not translate into a flurry of new hotel investment, though, she added, at least not until final legal appeals challenging the city's development plan are resolved.
Zamora is also a unique case in that it's built on a smaller scale and across the street from the Gulf of Mexico, which makes it less controversial than a larger Gulf front project might be, said Tim Bogott, CEO of TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach.
Until the threat of legal action against land-use rules are cleared, he said, hotel builders likely won't risk starting any new projects.
“I think it's a beautiful little property and we need more new development like this on St. Pete Beach,” he said.
“We're trying to get a new comprehensive land use plan approved that would let things like this happen, and we're still working on that, unfortunately.”
Once the legal dispute is put to rest, though, Lowe said the Zamora's example of reaching out to the community during construction and getting strong local buy-in shows there is a positive way forward in coming years.
“As we invite other development into the city, we can demonstrate how it can be done in a favorable way to everyone involved,” she said.