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Ulele, a restaurant for the next century

— This is more than a restaurant.

It’s Ulele.

In 16 days, the much-anticipated “native-inspired” restaurant featuring a menu with foods symbolic of the area’s pre-European tribal cultures and pioneer days will reveal its charms.

From a strictly physical standpoint, it’s a 6,800-square-foot, red-brick warehouse with a cathedral ceiling of crisscrossed whitewashed pine beams. A polished concrete floor supports an enormous circular stainless-steel barbacoa grill where Parmesan oysters on the half shell and Berkshire pork chops glazed with guava will roast.

A wooden-stepped staircase dissects the restaurant. It leads to two elevated wooden-floor dining mezzanines that overlook an oyster-shucking station downstairs and a bar with arrowheads and shells embedded in the countertop. Dining room windows provide views of tangerine sunsets over the Hillsborough River, perfect for enjoying chilled Florida avocado soup, fish broiled in kumquat brown butter and crispy pork shank with spicy apple Craisin chutney.

On the building’s north side is a beer garden outside a brewhouse stocked with tall, shiny kettles. Along the southern face, stately palms fan out over a grassy lawn and a spring that empties cool, crystal water into a root beer-colored lagoon where a bronze statue of a mythic native girl will stand watch.

Invisible to customers will be the hopes and ambitions of those who brought the project to life.

Nothing on the menu will hint at 61-year-old restaurateur Richard Gonzmart’s burning passion to create Ulele as a legacy for future generations of his family, which first opened Ybor City’s Columbia Restaurant in 1905. Born three blocks away from the water works, he and brother Casey, who together oversee the Columbia Restaurant Group, grew up playing on nearby streets and skiing on the river. The water that comes from the adjacent spring filled the water glasses and pots of their great-grandfather’s restaurant and the bottles of the Ybor brewery where he worked before the Columbia came into being.

There will be no plaque commemorating Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s steering the project toward the Gonzmarts’ deep pockets so the dilapidated, 112-year-old former city water works building could become a catalyst for urban renewal in Tampa Heights.

And diners won’t see the more than $6 million the city spent to refurbish the largely unused Water Works Park into a riverfront playground that will act as a magnet for restaurant patrons. Or that Ulele will provide a destination for walkers, joggers and cyclists on the $4.3 million final leg of the Tampa Riverwalk. Or that the park will be a bellwether for the $7 million restoration of Perry Harvey Sr. Park on the river’s western shore south of Interstate 275.

They also won’t know about the frustrations of city officials who struggled for decades to harness the power of the valuable waterfront space. Or the behind-the-scenes story of Gonzmart’s drive to transform the long-neglected industrial building into a high-profile restaurant in a faltering neighborhood.

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It is December 1998.

Tampa Mayor Dick Greco proposes an $84 million revitalization plan in Tampa Heights, the city’s oldest community. The Heights suffers from pollution, a decaying urban core and a flight by residents to the suburbs. Greco’s plan includes developing 56 acres around the old Tampa Police Department station.

A committee of Tampa Heights residents and government planners meets to talk about a parcel east of the Hillsborough River and bordered by Palm Avenue to the north, Tampa Street to the east and Interstate 275 to the south. Efforts by residents to have the area declared a cultural arts district have been snuffed out by the city.

Plans for redevelopment include a marina, a hotel, business and residential uses and a park that preserves the spring. The land next to the water works station was designated a public park in the 1920s. Greco wants the aquifer and public access to the river preserved.

One proposal seeks to build 1,000 apartments and town homes, and a corporate center, and to make the land the base for river taxis to take people to the Tampa Convention Center and other downtown attractions. A second group envisions a marina, waterfront restaurants, parks and a museum in an area it would dub River Bend.

But the plan falls apart. The land where the old police station sits is contaminated from oil and petroleum leaks. There is too much private property to purchase in the tract. Another proposal eight years later to turn the public land into commercial property for 1,900 condominiums and townhouses, offices and stores collapses amid the real estate bubble that leads to the Great Recession.

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It is February 2002.

After several years of political maneuvering, the Tampa Water Works building at 1805 N. Highland Ave. is designated a historically significant city landmark, saving it from demolition and qualifying the structure for rebuilding grants.

Built in 1902 and known as Pumping Station No. 3, the building next to Magbee Spring supplied fresh water to surrounding neighborhoods at a time when the city’s population was only about 15,000. The park also was once home to a botanical garden. The water station ceased operation in 1925, although 80,000 gallons a day still flow into the Hillsborough River.

The building “is very important to our heritage because of the capacity it had,” Annie Hart, the city’s historic preservation administrator, says at the time. “It enabled neighborhoods like Tampa Heights to happen.”

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It is November 2005.

Chris Longo, a 17-year-old Plant High School senior presents research for his Eagle Scout designation that explores the history of Magbee Spring at the water works.

Longo’s goal: Get the name changed to Ulele Spring in honor of the Pocahontas-style legend related to the daughter of a Timucuan tribal chief who lived during the 1500s in what today is Tampa.

Longo discovers that in 1528, Ulele purportedly saved the life of Juan Ortiz, one of a group sent from Cuba to find the explorer Panfilo de Narvaez, who was in Florida searching for gold.

Ulele’s father, Chief Hirrihigua, took Ortiz prisoner and tortured him in revenge for de Narvaez’s killing the chief’s mother. Ulele eventually whisked Ortiz away to safety on the Hillsborough River.

The spring’s first namesake is not as dignified: James T. Magbee, a circuit judge who presided from 1868 until his forced resignation in 1875. Magbee, who moved to Tampa from Georgia in 1820, owned the spring property and adjacent land.

In 1871, Magbee reportedly fell down drunk at Franklin and Washington streets, after which people poured molasses and corn on him and hogs tore at his clothes.

“Should the alcoholic judge have his name remain on the lifeblood of Tampa’s first water source?” Longo writes to the Tampa City Council. “Changing the name from Magbee Spring to Ulele Spring would put dignity back into the spring and would also establish the Spanish-American Indian connection in early America.”

The city council agrees and votes to rename the spring.

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It is April 2011.

Bob Buckhorn takes office as Tampa’s 58th mayor after winning a runoff election with almost 63 percent of the vote.

Among his goals is to build on the success of the new Tampa Museum of Art and Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, bringing more residents downtown and building cultural attractions in and around the downtown core.

Five months later, the newly elected city council puts out a request for proposals from developers interested in renovating the water works building and possibly leasing or buying it from the city. It is estimated the project will cost $2 million.

The bid in January 2012 eventually goes to the Columbia Restaurant Group, owner of seven Columbia restaurants in Florida, including the iconic founding location in Ybor City. The group buys a 20-year lease for $1 a year, with three subsequent renewable 20-year options.

Richard Gonzmart, president and CEO, argues passionately for his company’s proposal, drawing on his family’s ties to Tampa Heights. Among four other bids, the only other serious contender is from the owners of Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe in Seminole Heights.

More importantly, the Columbia bid wins the support of Buckhorn, who thinks the waterfront is underutilized and in need of restaurants.

To spice up the deal, the city agrees to invest millions rebuilding the 5-acre Water Works Park and extending the last leg of the Riverwalk north to Seventh Avenue. The city also pledges $100,000 in state and federal grants and municipal funds to refurbish the spring, which is overgrown with weeds, trees and debris and is used by transients as an outdoor bathing spot.

Gonzmart envisions a restaurant unlike the Columbia. Instead, it will be a seafood-heavy chophouse named Ciao’s, in honor of Dominick Ciao, who coached at Gonzmart’s alma mater, Jesuit High School.

“Gonzmart was clearly better positioned because he had more capital available to him,” the mayor later says. “He’s in love with this project. If you sit and talk to him about it, he’s like a kid.”

It is hoped that the restaurant can be open by August 2012, when the Republican National Convention visits Tampa to name Mitt Romney as its presidential candidate.

“These decisions were not accidental,” Buckhorn says. “In the long run, I can justify [guiding the bid] because I know what will happen at the end of this. You’ll spur a lot more private capital coming to the table, which will generate property taxes. And I get to replenish the pot and seed something else. It will be as close as we can have to Tavern on the Green.”

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It is March 2012.

Richard Gonzmart is standing with consultants outside the water works building on a large expanse of grass between the parking lot and the river.

The city has yet to sign the lease for the building. This does not deter him.

The lawn of bahia grass and weeds where he’s standing will one day be a large basin where the spring’s flow will mix with the river’s tidal waters.

For now, he must lean over the cracked concrete seawall to see the spring pouring into the river.

“See those oysters?” he asks, pointing to the outflow. “That’s what the native people ate here on the river. I love oysters. We’re going to have grilled oysters.”

Unlocking a padlocked steel door, he walks with the group inside to tour the building. A dusty, smoky aroma hangs in the air. In the middle of an open portion, a burn mark indicates where someone got past the steel mesh and plywood over the windows and built a fire directly on the floor. A mix of chairs and trash surround the spot. Outside, someone has left faded laundry hanging on a fence next to the spring.

The interior will need to be gutted and rebuilt, except for a load-bearing brick wall that was an exterior face of the original building before it was expanded to its current form. Two dusty shelves are stocked with rusty containers of car wax, solvents and enamel. On another shelf sits a faded clock depicting the Last Supper. One interior door reads “WOMEN’S LOCKER.” Gonzmart walks past another door with the words “KEEP OUT.”

It will take months to remove the debris from years of neglect and scrub asbestos from the building. There is no site plan, so everything from plumbing to electrical to the source of the spring under the building must be rediscovered.

The restaurant will not open in time for the Republican convention.

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It is July 2012.

Richard Gonzmart stands over a conference table in a third-floor room at Beck Construction, which will rebuild the water works building next door to its Tampa Heights headquarters.

At the table is his brother, Columbia Restaurant Group Chairman Casey Gonzmart, as well as Beck architect Joe Harrington, construction consultant Bill Rain and project manager Keith Sedita, hired by Gonzmart earlier that month.

On the table before them are architectural plans for a 230-seat restaurant.

Sedita co-founded Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar in Clearwater and was an operating partner at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse in Tampa. He will spearhead the project, executing Gonzmart’s vision for the restaurant.

It will be his job to source local businesses and American products whenever possible. He will help find an executive chef, groom the logo, select the wine portfolio, search for a marketing manager and do whatever is necessary to bring the project together. He will meet during lunch with local historians to learn more details about the Ulele legend. He will arrange a visit to get the spring’s water quality tested by Crystal Springs Preserve, the source for Zephyrhills bottled water. He coordinates trips to Brooksville to check out family-made ice cream machines, to New Orleans to eat an endless supply of oysters and to Mexico to arrange a private batch of tequila to be made by Patron.

While Gonzmart is the public face of the restaurant, Sedita is to be a consigliere of sorts, working with Tampa Heights groups on an urban garden, negotiating design points to match historic preservationist demands and organizing tastings at the Columbia’s kitchen. Sedita will be the one sourcing the kumquats in Dade City and the milk at Dakin Dairy Farms in Myakka City for house-made ice cream. He will serve samples at a downtown chili cook-off.

As the architectural meeting ends, Sedita pulls a paper from a stack and slides it across the table to a visitor. It reads, “U-le-le Tavern on the Water; FIRE, WATER & SPIRITS.”

“What do you think about that name?” he says.

Ciao’s is no more. The restaurant has a new identity. It has no chef — Eric Lackey of FlameStone Grill in Oldsmar and Besa Grill in Clearwater won’t be hired until June 2013 — but Gonzmart has decided the menu will reflect the oysters, fish and crabs harvested by the Tocobaga Indians, and the pork brought to America by the European pioneers who landed near Tampa Bay.

They’ll also be making beer, as a nod to Gonzmart’s family history in brewing. Tim Shackton, formerly a brewmaster with the Hops restaurant chain, gets the job creating signature beers for Ulele as well as for the rest of the Columbia Restaurant chain.

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It is June 26, 2013.

Buckhorn and several hundred guests gather in the excavated building for the ground breaking. In the audience are the extended branches of the Gonzmart family tree.

“This was the water my great-grandfather and my grandparents used to make garbanzo bean soup,” Richard Gonzmart tells the group.

“This will be the anchor on the northern end of our waterfront,” Buckhorn says as morning sunlight fills the room. “The city’s going to redo the park. We’re going to reclaim the spring.”

As soon as the room clears, workers will begin jackhammering the floor to repour the foundation.

What they find a few months later sets the project back significantly. In an adjoining building that once housed the city’s television station, pipes dating back to its use as a pump house are discovered under a thick concrete base. The room is intended to serve as Ulele’s brewhouse. The pipes and a cistern must be excavated, removed and covered over before the room can be used.

Sections of the pipes will be saved and used as industrial art of sorts, perched in the garden not far from a bronze statue of Ulele that Gonzmart has commissioned for the patio.

A banner outside reads “OPENING SPRING 2014.” That date is about to shift significantly. So will the project’s cost, which is now spiraling upwards of $5 million. Just mentioning the number makes Gonzmart’s wife, Melanie, shake her head and roll her eyes.

“The cost of finding these pipes would have sunk anyone else who got the bid,” Sedita says.

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It is March 26, 2014.

Construction is ongoing inside Ulele, but most of the main structures are in place. A second-story mezzanine perches above the dining room. The enormous grill is installed but is awaiting its ventilation hood. Custom-made kitchen equipment is slowly coming into the building.

That doesn’t stop Richard Gonzmart from setting up a makeshift five-course dinner by Lackey at the restaurant, complete with grilled oysters, blue crab cocktail and kumquat ice cream — and a batch of Shackton’s freshly brewed Ulele Pale Ale.

The dinner has a special resonance. Gonzmart has been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Forty friends and powerful business associates arrive for a restaurant preview and to hear Gonzmart movingly ask them to participate in a Father’s Day fun run to benefit prostate cancer research at Moffitt Cancer Center.

Among the guests is Joey Redner, president of Cigar City Brewing. Redner advised Gonzmart on how to build a brewery at Ulele, telling him how the spring water might be used for production and also how to go about distributing beer to the other restaurants. Redner’s father, Joe, who was once called “the city’s leading antagonist,” is battling lung cancer. Prostate cancer took Gonzmart’s father, Cesar, whose bust is displayed in the entrance of the Columbia in Ybor City.

The Columbia was a legacy business when Richard Gonzmart assumed the mantle. A sense of family and tradition infuses almost everything he does. He and Casey know the new restaurant is their legacy to their children and, perhaps, their grandchildren.

They also know time is an illusion. In April 2013, Casey was near the finish line of the Boston Marathon when bombs exploded. His wife was finishing the course. Both were unharmed. Richard had planned to run the race, but an Achilles tendon injury kept him at home.

Still, Gonzmart is taking his time to open the restaurant. Everything must be in place. The opening date slips to Aug. 26. By that time, Buckhorn will be back from a trip. Water Works Park will be open. Beer will be ready for pouring. The kitchen equipment will be in place. Staff will be trained.

He knows how much is riding on a strong first impression.

A deeply spiritual Catholic, Gonzmart sees his path to creating the restaurant as guided by the Holy Spirit. Even his Achilles injury was a divine blessing, helping him avoid the bombing.

“My children’s nickname for my mom, Adela, was ‘Lele,’” he said. “I was born three blocks from here. A gun-running boat from the Civil War was sunk in the river by a ship named the Adela. What kind of coincidence is that?”

This is more than a restaurant.

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