TAMPA - Mayor Bob Buckhorn and the Columbia Restaurant's President Richard Gonzmart and Chairman Casey Gonzmart will push shovels into the dirt along the Hillsborough River this morning during a groundbreaking for a restaurant at the former Tampa Water Works building. But the ceremony is far from the start of this project. The Gonzmarts have spent more than a year working with architects, construction supervisors, historians, water managers and city officials to transform the building into the restaurant Ulele (pronounced You-lay-lee). In May, the Tampa City Council voted to approve a 20-year lease with the Columbia Restaurant Group. The group was selected in 2012 to renovate the 9,800-square-foot building, beating out three other bidders.
The winning bid projected the restaurant group would spend nearly $2 million of its own money to pay for improvements, including a two-level dining room, indoor-outdoor seating and a surrounding patio. The Water Works building on the Hillsborough River's eastern shoreline is a historic landmark. The brick structure with a cathedral ceiling and hand-crank windows was built in the early 1900s as the city's third potable water pumping station, The building stands next to a natural spring adjacent to Stetson University College of Law at Seventh Avenue and Doyle Carlton Drive. Ulele Spring, named for a mythical native maiden who is said to have saved the life of an early Spanish explorer, still gushes water into the Hillsborough River. Buckhorn has said the project is key to revitalizing Tampa Heights. An important component to the deal was the assumption that the city's Riverwalk would extend north, finishing along the seawall that Ulele will overlook. In April, the city approved $8.8 million in construction to extend the Riverwalk to Curtis Hixon Park from MacDill Park. Later today, city council members will consider spending $367,000 for design and construction costs to improve Water Works Park, which is adjacent to where Ulele will operate. The restaurant group has secured the option to host special events in the park after improvements are completed. "The city really was eager for this project to happen," Ulele managing partner Keith Sedita said Tuesday. "The city worked with Richard and shared the same excitement (in the project). We have been working together to put a beautiful restaurant in this historic building," he said. During the restaurant's extensive planning sessions, Richard Gonzmart and Sedita researched foods and suppliers to build a menu that will feature ingredients indigenous to local waters and the region and that were eaten by early Native Americans and European explorers. A grill that is 10 feet in diameter with a towering vent, for example, will burn citrus wood for cooking oysters and other local, sustainable seafood. They also consulted preservationists on how best to modernize the structure without damaging its historically significant architecture. Many of the hand-cranked windows, for example, will be replicated according to period specifications. Even tension wires spanning the building's north and south exterior walls were deemed too significant for disposal. Eric Lackey, who most recently was the corporate chef for Flamestone American Grill and Besa Grill, was hired June 3 to be Ulele's executive chef. Tim Shackton is the restaurant's brewmaster. He formerly worked in the same capacity for Hops Grill and Brewery. Demolition and removal of interior structures and materials began in May. The restaurant is projected to open in February. [email protected] (813) 259-7324