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Bank on it

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  • | 6:42 a.m. January 31, 2014
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The Franklin Exchange, a three-building block in the heart of the central business district of Tampa, is getting a new look.

Workers are expected to complete exterior renovations, including new colors and terra cotta awnings, within a few months.

The tallest buildings, at 22 and seven stories, offer office space.

But the Franklin Exchange's smallest and oldest building, nearly a century old, and once home to Exchange National Bank, has a new use.

It has been turned into an event venue, called The Vault.

With its 35-foot ceilings and neoclassical architecture, its owner says it's a premier venue much needed in burgeoning downtown.

“The vault is part of history; it's what makes us unique,” says Carolyn Wilson of The Wilson Co., a Tampa real estate development company founded by Wilson's late husband, Jack Wilson.

The Wilson Co. bought the downtown block in the late 1990s and moved its headquarters to the 22nd floor of the tallest building.

The Vault, the project's smallest building at 6,000 square feet, was used as office space in recent years. But during the recession, it stood vacant after Solutions Inc., Wilson's construction company, moved to the taller tower.

The Wilson Co. considered requests by prospective tenants to modernize the building as office space, but decided against it, Wilson says.

“It wouldn't be in its true glory,” she says. “It's part of history and it needs to be shared with the public as much as possible.”

Changes have come slowly to the building, which now hosts events big and small, from events for the University of South Florida to weddings.

“It's so beautiful. We took baby steps at first,” Wilson says.

In the past year or so, Wilson has spent more than $3 million for renovations to all three buildings so far.

As the economy rebounds and demand for commercial real estate space grows, The Wilson Co. is part of a growing number of developers that are renovating buildings and finding creative reuses.

Near the Franklin Exchange, Memphis-based Development Service Group is renovating the historic federal courthouse at Florida Avenue and Twiggs Street into a boutique hotel, Le Meredien.

Blocks away, Liberty Group is turning the former Mercantile Bank Building, on the Hillsborough River, into another boutique hotel. The Aloft is at Kennedy Boulevard and Ashley Drive.

Other downtown developments are proposed, including Trammell Crow's Southgate, a 20-story office building.

At the Franklin Exchange, Wilson has more changes planned.

She anticipates opening a lounge in the basement of the Vault. The bar will be reminiscent of a speak-easy that were popular during the days of prohibition.

“We're letting it evolve; we're trying to be flexible,” Wilson says. “Downtown is changing.”

The upturn in the economy, coupled with more people living downtown in condos, has brought new life to the central business district.

With a growing residential population, there's increased demand for other commercial uses, including restaurants, bars and shops, says Anne-Marie Ayers, an office broker and first vice president at CB Richard Ellis in Tampa.

Wilson hopes to attract more office tenants to the 271,000-square-foot Franklin Exchange. For six years, it went without a new tenant.

As of year-end, the project was about 50% full.

In the past year and a half, Brown & Brown leased about 40,000-square-foot on three floors and engineering firm Kimley-Horn & Associates occupies most of one floor.

“We've had a lot more interest recently,” says Sandra McBride, a senior property manager for The Wilson Co.

The Franklin Exchange's tallest tower has another two floors available for immediate lease at about $18.50 to $20 per square foot. Another five floors require mechanical renovations prior to being occupied.

Wilson is optimistic the venture will prove profitable.

As renovations are made and the economy improves, Wilson expects to attract more office tenants to the Exchange. She expects demand from tenants who are looking for a more intimate space where others know their name and they're given access to the Vault.

“We aren't trying to compete with the tall glass buildings,” she says.


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