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A Genteel Space

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  • | 7:49 a.m. February 15, 2013
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The Oxford Exchange, a rehabbed brick structure near downtown Tampa, wasn't supposed to be a money-maker. It was intended as a community gathering place, a setting for the exchange of ideas, and a way for Blake Casper and his sister, Allison Casper Adams, to give back to the community.

Barely 5 months old, the Exchange has indeed become a gathering place, an upscale hangout that draws CEOs and university students alike. Its soaring interior houses a restaurant, coffee and tea bars, lounge chairs, shops and a club where members can rent conference space by the hour or sit quietly with a laptop. The Oxford Exchange is Tampa's new go-to place for lunch or conversation, and patrons say it fills a void by providing Tampa with an elegant gathering space that could easily fit in New York or London.

Tampa residents fell in love with the eateries and shops, and the concept of thought-provoking speakers. They flocked to the restaurant, snatched up honey jars and candles at the shop, and have already prompted the Exchange's founder and director to expand into baked goods, new catering and branded merchandise. At lunch, the restaurant is so busy reservations are needed. Casper has rented a 3,500-square-foot adjacent store to build a second kitchen and bakery, a new shop that will be called the Marketplace.

Casper and Adams are partners in Caspers Co., a Tampa-based family firm that has owned McDonald's restaurants for more than half a century. Blake Casper, a graduate of the London School of Economics, is chairman and CEO of the firm. Adams is an entrepreneur and director of the Oxford Exchange. Caspers Co. owns 53 McDonald's.

“We always wanted to have a place in Tampa where people could gather,” says Adams. “We didn't build it so it would be a profitable business. That was never what the conversation was about.” Other wealthy families might donate to a museum or hospital, but the siblings envisioned the new center as a thank you for the family's success. In 2011, Caspers Co. posted revenue of nearly $178 million.

Blake Casper bought two buildings at 410 and 420 W. Kennedy Blvd. in 2011 for $1.15 million, according to Hillsborough County records. Built in 1925 and 1950, they totaled 24,868 square feet. Part of the property had housed stables for the Tampa Bay Hotel built by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant in the late 1800s. The hotel closed in 1930, and later became part of the University of Tampa.

The arcade-style buildings languished for years, and redevelopment unearthed a trove of relics. “They found a lot of old horseshoes—we kept them and framed them,” says Adams.

The entrepreneurs drew inspiration from London, where shops line old arcades, and alleys wind underground. To the dark Tampa buildings, the architects added skylights, a conservatory, and arched windows. In September, the Oxford Exchange debuted, drenched in light and showcasing the retail shop of specialty wares and gifts. It offers refreshment at TeBella tea shop, Buddy Brew coffee, and the gourmet restaurant. A bookstore displays architectural volumes, classics and new fiction at a time when other bookstores are closing. “We believe there is still the love of a hardbound book,” says Adams. The Exchange owns the restaurant and two stores, while the coffee and tea bars are separately owned.

Although laptops occasionally occupy tables on the first floor near the coffee and tea shops, the space does not provide wireless service. “We prefer that people talk to each other downstairs, and if they need to work and be alone, they can go upstairs to the Commerce Club,” says Adams.

Club membership costs $75 per month and allows members to rent glass-walled conference rooms for nominal hourly fees. The club taps into the emerging mobile work force operating beyond traditional offices.

The Exchange is bustling. “The retail space has blown all of our wildest expectations,” says Adams, although she declines to provide figure. She flies to London, New York, and Paris to buy goods with “an interesting story.” The Exchange plans to brand umbrellas and soaps with its name.

Although the restaurant and bookstore are still subsidized, revenue opportunities keep multiplying, including hosting formal events. Although the Oxford Exchange didn't start with a formal business plan, the siblings hope it will become financially self-sustaining. In an age of reality TV and fast-paced Internet communication, they believe there's a demand for a genteel space where people can exhale — quietly read or exchange ideas.

“Maybe it's different and old-school,” says Adams. “We thought there's still that level of civility and manners.”


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