What should have been a joyous occasion for David Sokol and his nearly 100 employees at Fresco’s Waterfront Bistro left more questions than answers.
Mayor Ken Welch recently selected Safe Harbor Marinas to redevelop and operate the adjacent St. Petersburg Municipal Marina, and Sokol partnered with the company to keep Fresco’s alive. However, city administrators then removed the downtown bayfront staple from Safe Harbor’s proposal.
Sokol must now submit a separate individual proposal and compete against other restaurateurs. He anxiously awaits hearing the mayoral administration’s reasoning for not moving forward with his and Safe Harbor’s plans for the city-owned property at 300 2nd Ave. NE.
“At this point, the city really doesn’t know what they want to do – they’re not quite ready yet to do anything,” Sokol told the Catalyst. “The seawall needs to be replaced, and they want to take Fresco’s down. But they’re still noncommittal on what they want, whether it’s in that space or a different space, and I guess I’ll have to wait and see …”
Sokol, a local attorney, bought a small restaurant next to the 640-slip marina in 2003. He successfully endured storms, years without a nearby St. Pete Pier and the pandemic.
Now that the area is booming, he and his employees risk losing their livelihoods. Fresco’s remains an outlier among the downtown waterfront’s array of modern, high-end establishments, with its aging building and old Florida atmosphere.
After years of debate, Welch reissued a request for proposals (RFP) in April 2023 for a private company to redevelop and manage the marina. It included the option to reimagine an adjacent restaurant that “blends better” with the surrounding area.
Rather than waving a white flag, Sokol hired architects to design a new facility and partnered with one of two applicants, Safe Harbor Marinas. Cost estimates were around $4 million, and he said the company agreed to foot the bill.
Sokol noted Safe Harbor also had a tenant with a proven 20-year track record. “To me, it was a win-win if they picked us,” he said.
James Corbett, city development administrator, provided some context for the decision. “We think that it’s best if we get a wider range of specific proposals related to the operation and development of restaurant space,” he said.
Corbett confirmed that the city will issue a new RFP for the site this fall. He said the process is “wide open.”
“We want to look for the strongest proposal that meets all of our requirements and what we’re looking to do going forward,” Corbett added. “But he’s (Sokol) certainly in contention as much as anyone else.”
Sokol said he already spent $20,000 developing the previous proposal. The new RFP guidelines will dictate if he must start from scratch.
Sokol pledged to apply again but said the process is sometimes “weird.” Applications are sealed, and he said someone could “offer twice as much money.”
Safe Harbor would have leased the new facility to Sokol. He explained that the company would bulldoze the current restaurant – as the city requested – and create an open space that provides views of the Pier.
Sokol said the plan “made sense,” as Safe Harbor would build a new seawall and restaurant before demolishing Fresco’s. “So, everybody stays employed,” he added.
Environmental studies, permitting and construction on the marina will take years. Sokol said establishing a plan for Fresco’s beforehand would help keep employees – several have been there for over a decade – in their jobs.
He said they embraced the previous plan with Safe Harbor. While Sokol declined to opine if the abrupt reversal is “good” or “bad” for him and his employees, he questions why administrators chose not to “do it all at once.”
Sokol’s 10-year lease on the property expires in April. He said administrators offered to extend the deadline to May 2025 while they decide what will become of the site.
Sokol said that provides time to try and increase the likelihood that Fresco’s will remain part of St. Petersburg’s waterfront landscape. He hopes to avoid closing the doors “until the last possible minute.”
The city council must eventually approve a negotiated contract with Safe Harbor. Sokol has at least one ally on the dais.
“I’ve made it clear that I want Fresco’s to be included in any redevelopment plan for the marina,” said Councilmember Gina Driscoll, who represents the area. “It’s been a St. Pete tradition for over 20 years.
“Why would we want to destroy that?”