Villa Rosa anchors South Tampa neighborhood experiencing new business renaissance

A wicker trunk started it all.

Inside, Maruchi Azorin placed the household wares that were the foundation of her dream --  fine linens and laces, pillow cases, bedding and cocktail napkins.

Azorin remembers the day in September 1984, and the school bazaar where she opened the trunk, spread her goods on a table and set out the sign for "Villa Rosa."

The road show trunk sales are memories but not Azorin's Villa Rosa Distinctive Linens in the heart of the Palma Ceia Business District.

In September she celebrated the 30th anniversary of her shop with a new ribbon cutting. Wielding scissors with Azorin were Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioners Sandy Murman and Al Higginbotham.

"I'm just overwhelmed. It's an emotional day," says Azorin, who came to the United States in 1960 as an 8-year-old fleeing with her parents from Castro's communist regime in Cuba. She remembers militia coming into their home and later hiding on the floor board of her parents' car as they drove through checkpoints to the airport. "It's the kind of stuff you don't ever forget," she says.

But she adds, "Hopefully (Villa Rosa) will serve as an example for some young person, maybe an immigrant, to come along and set his own example."

Deja vu all over again

Three decades ago not many would have looked at Mark's 66 gas station in Palma Ceia and seen a future. But today the re-tooled gas station is an upscale shop that anchors the corner of South MacDill Avenue and Bay to Bay Boulevard.

Azorin has witnessed the ebbs and flows of the neighborhood's commercial life blood. 

"It's amazing there have been so many resurgences," she says. 

A commercial and residential boom is taking off in Palma Ceia with new boutiques, restaurants and offices amid the long-time stalwarts such as Villa Rosa, the Royal Tea Room & Gift Shoppe, Beef 'O Brady's, Flying Fish Bikes, Michael Murphy Gallery, Pane Rustica and Byblos Cafe. Medical and dental offices cluster along MacDill and Bay to Bay.  

Newer arrivals include CASS (Contemporary Art Space & Studio), Evolation yoga studio, a restaurant trifecta of Datz, Dough and Roux Creole Nouvelle, and Toffee to Go. One block over on  Bayshore Boulevard, a residential tower — Aquatica on Bayshore - will soon be under construction at the former site of land best known for demonstrations by the Bayshore Patriots. On a smaller scale, Waverly Courtyard Villas are under construction at MacDill and Euclid Avenue.

Azorin remembers a different landscape when she opened Villa Rosa. There was an abandoned plumbing supply company, an antique shop that also was a former gas station and a moving van company. Simon Schwartz Market, a long-time upscale grocer in South Tampa, is gone. The Palma Ceia Village Health Market & Cafe now offers organic foods, pet, health and beauty supplies, deli selections and literature.  

"It was all about location, location, location," says Azorin.

It is always a good sign to see older businesses flourishing, says Kelly Flannery, President and CEO of the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce. "I think it's a testament to residents and business owners of our community. People who live, work, and play here see the value of supporting the businesses here."

New businesses also are adding to the commercial hum.

Neighborhood grew organically

While Buckhorn's administration is working on a master-planned urban vision for downtown, with apartments, condos, shops, restaurants and the arts, this South Tampa neighborhood is creating its own urban, artsy style. "This one grew organically," Buckhorn says. "That's what I love seeing."

Sometimes what it takes is a business owner who has the courage to take a chance, he adds.

Flannery once worked as corporate sales manager for Toffee to Go, an entrepreneurial business that opened on Bay to Bay and became one of Oprah Winfrey's "favorite things." 

"We're always very excited to see new businesses and innovative businesses in South Tampa as a whole," she says. "It is in part that we have such businesses as Datz and Dough that draw people to the (Palma Ceia) area. You have such an eclectic mix."

Azorin's educational background is in marketing research and she did her homework down to the nuts and bolts of studying daily vehicle trips along MacDill. She paid attention to what customers snapped up at trunk sales and what was left untouched. She asked questions. And decided there would be a market in the baby boomer generation that traveled and warmed to the European lifestyle and its products.

And, she says, "You have to hold tight to your core product."

Her vision is to market beauty with functionality in the fine linens, table ware, vintage wine decanters, baby and christening gowns, specialty Christmas ornaments, plush velvet pumpkins for the Halloween season, home accessories and fragrances at Villa Rosa. On buying trips, she searches the Paris flea market and estate sales in New Orleans for vintage treasures, particularly the fine laces and embroideries hand made decades ago.

"The neatest part is the hunt," Azorin says. She goes through barrels of old clothes to find the best of discarded luxuries. "It was made by hand, somebody thought about it. Maybe a grandmother embroidered with her granddaughter on the porch after school. It's more than a piece of fabric. 

It's about love and tradition and spending time with family."

Education is key to success

When her family left Cuba, they brought only what could be held in three suitcases. They arrived in Miami before moving to North Carolina and then Harlem, GA, a small town outside of Augusta.

Azorin's father managed a factory in Harlem for three years before moving to Plant City where he founded Florida Brick and Clay Company. The business, which is still family-owned, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

Higginbotham is a former classmate of Azorin's. She graduated magna cum laude from Plant City High School. "We always knew she would do something like this," he says. "She's proven us right."

Azorin says she knew in middle school that she wanted a business career. She studied foreign languages as an undergraduate at the University of Florida and then earned a master's degree in business, also from UF. She was one of the first women selected for Florida Blue Key, the state's oldest leadership honorary founded in 1923. 

Azorin also was the first Hispanic woman named to the University of Florida Hall of Fame.

"Education is what talks," she says.

It is a lesson that she passes on to future generations.  

She is the founder of the MOSI Tampa's annual Hispanic Scientist of the Year Award, a one-of-a-kind nationally recognized honor. 

The scientists serve as role models and mentors for middle school students to help reduce the high drop out rate among Hispanic students. To date more than $2 million has been collected for MOSI's STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) program and more than 20,000 Hispanic students have benefited.

Azorin was chairwoman  for eight years on the Tampa Mayor's Hispanic Advisory Council and created the annual Latinos Unidos Luncheon to recognize Hispanic business leaders and support student scholarships.

"We're trying to fill them with dreams," Azorin says. "There is no reason they can't be scientists. Being in this location and this store, I see what giving back to my community means. Somebody did it for me."

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a feature writer and editor at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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