Sharing His Success—That’s Bill Edwards
Businessman, financier, concert promoter and recording company executive, philanthropist, real estate developer, Edwards has touched the lives of many residents across Tampa Bay. His generosity has extended from a $4.6 million donation that propelled the Tampa Bay Host Committee over its $55 million fundraising goal for the Republican National Convention to providing air flights for wounded war veterans.
His story is one of an American Dream, a rags-to-riches tale of struggle, self-determination, risk-taking and smarts that have made him one of the biggest power players in Pinellas County. Perhaps best known as the new owner of downtown St. Pete’s ailing BayWalk and new manager of The Mahaffey Theater, the 68-year-old Edwards says he is most proud of his successful Mortgage Investors Corp., where he is chairman, CEO and president. He says the company expects to make over $6 billion in sales in 2011 and has played a vital role in his ability to help the community.
“We started this company 19 years ago with a $30,000 loan,” he said during a recent interview in his St. Petersburg office. “Today we employ about 1,350 people. We’re one of the largest veteran lenders in the country.”
A passion for music led Edwards to build a state-of-the-art recording studio so he could start a label and become a record producer. His latest record is the debut CD from American Idol contestant Michael Lynche. He also owns two hotels on the beach, including the Club at Treasure Island, which he is expanding with 24 luxury suites in addition to its operation as a luxury private club. He lives in St Pete with his wife, Joey, and 2-year-old daughter Katie.
Edwards has become a champion for the revitalization of downtown St. Petersburg. In 2011, he bought the troubled BayWalk shopping and entertainment complex for $5.2 million with a goal to transform it into a high-end dining, retail and nightlife center. The newly named Sundial of St. Pete has now opened as a premiere shopping Destination in St Petersburg.
Edwards and his Big 3 Entertainment group bid to manage the 2,031-seat Mahaffey Theater at Progress Energy Center for the Arts and won. The city-owned theater had been struggling financially. He invested $2 million toward a major makeover and opened several months later with a bash for hundreds of civic leaders, city and county officials and media.
“It was something that needed to be taken care of,” he said. “We’ve got a five-year plan, and already we’re seeing a huge increase in attendance over a year ago. We want to offer more shows–something for everyone. We’re even working with the city on a program called Class Acts that brings school kids into the theater to introduce them to the arts. This theater belongs to the community, it’s owned by the city but it belongs to the taxpayers.”
Bringing in the museum-quality Titanic exhibit was a way to utilize unused space on the second floor, he explained, and attract a new audience. By mid-run in November, attendance was booming.
“It has far exceeded our expectations,” he says.
Edwards has a soft place in his heart for the less fortunate, particularly wounded veterans and children. He is the largest single donor to the Veterans Airlift Command, which transports injured veterans for medical and personal reasons. Last year about 2,000 pilots flew 3,700 missions across the country, he says.
Edwards beams with pride when he talks about the program. He relates to the plight of injured military, maybe because he was wounded in both legs while serving in Vietnam.
“Fifty thousand veterans live in hospitals throughout the U.S.,” he relates. “I spent nearly two years in a hospital so I know how it feels. It’s very sad. Most are in wheelchairs, many are double amputees and need help getting around. The Airlift Command program provides private planes and pilots who donate their time to transport veterans when they need to get medical treatment or see loved ones.”
His deep pockets also extend to All Children’s Hospital, to which he has given $3.4 million.
For a decade, the Edwards Family Foundation has organized a Holiday Donation Drive providing food and gifts to hundreds of disadvantaged families from various elementary and middle schools, the Boys & Girls Club of Suncoast, family resource centers, Police Athletic League and other organizations. Local sports celebrities and public officials stop by; there are hotdogs and games and food for the kids, and, of course, a visit by Santa. The drive held December 15 distributed bicycles with helmets, food baskets, new toys, and new and used clothing.
“It makes such a difference,” says Edwards proudly. “For a lot of these families, it’s all they have for Christmas.”
The University of South Florida in St. Petersburg honored Edwards with the “Gandhi, King, Ikeda Community Bridge Builder Award” for his philanthropic work with children and veterans. Previous recipients include Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
In a Tampa Bay Times article, USF advisor for community affairs Goliath Davis calls Edwards an unsung hero. “Bill Edwards is a man that people know for Bay Walk (now Sundial) and Mahaffey,” Davis said. “What people don’t know are the things that he does philanthropically that make a difference in people’s lives.”
Life hasn’t always been so rosy.
Edwards overcame personal tragedies earlier in life. He grew up poor in Bedford, Mass., one of six children of a taxi driver. Two life-threatening experiences changed his outlook on life and led him on his current path.
“The first was Vietnam which changed my life totally,” he said. “I wasn’t expected to walk again but I refused to accept that. Second one was in the early ‘90s. I was diagnosed with Guillain–Barré syndrome, which totally crippled me for about 18 months. After I recovered from that illness, I realized how important life is and what you should do with it.”
“I’ve lived the American Dream,” admits Edwards. “I’ve succeeded in everything, been blessed with many things. One thing I’ve learned is if you try hard enough and you never give up, you’ll succeed. You keep raising your goals and you’ll achieve even more.”
When asked who his main influence is he answers without hesitation.
“I’m influenced by God. He’s the guy I have to answer to at the end of the day. I made a deal with him when I pulled through my health crisis. So far, I’ve kept my part of the deal and He’s kept His.”
by Marcia Biggs