Something Old, Something New

Two former softball players put new life into Sunset Inn

TREASURE ISLAND—The Sunset Inn on Sunset Beach has just been rehabilitated and the new owners hope it will become a new destination for vacationers of all stripes.

They say the place is welcoming to spring breakers, snowbirds, weekenders and family reunions. That is a wide array of uses for an old motel that had apparently outlived its usefulness.

Two Treasure Island women decided it could be done and set out to make it happen.

Residents Michele Smith and Laurie Davidson are friends and business partners. Together they saw the old Sunset Inn, 7925 W. Gulf Blvd., as a place that could bring the past into the present and help them fulfill their dreams at the same time.

They say what each of them brings to the table is what will make the venture successful.

“I enjoy taking old properties and making them whole again,” said Smith. “A few years ago a friend and I rehabbed a project in St. Petersburg so I felt confident I knew what it took to get a property up and running.”

Smith said Davidson has an entirely different set of skills.

“Laurie is good at marketing and working with people,” she said. “She’s involved with making the reservations, decorating and public relations issues.”

The two women bought the property earlier this year in January and got right down to business, although it wasn’t easy.

“When we bought the property it was right in the middle of the high season,” said Davidson. “We had to work quickly, getting the old stuff out and bringing in new furniture and so on. We hit the ground running. All the while we were taking bookings; it was tough when you are in such a time crunch.”

The women’s backgrounds give no hint to the fact that Smith, 48 and Davidson, 34, might end up as owners of a hotel and cottage complex on the beach.

Smith is a former U.S. Olympic softball team gold medal winner who travels the country conducting clinics and giving speeches. She is also ESPN’s main softball analyst.

Davidson, also a former softball player, spent her working life as a regional sales manager for a national cycling company. That too kept her traveling the country.

“I would travel 95 percent of the time,” she said. “I was never home, always on the road. I was always sleeping anywhere but my own bed so this sounded pretty good to me.”

“I never thought I’d be doing something like this,” Smith added. “The best is that I’m at home. To me this is what is appealing. People take for granted working where they live.”

The Sunset Inn dates back to the 1940s. It is a combination six-room hotel and six beach cottages. Two of those cottages were actually floated over to Sunset Beach from MacDill Air Force Base after the war when there wasn’t as much demand for officers’ living quarters.

But all that history doesn’t come without a price when you try to modernize it.

“We had plenty of electrical issues,” said Smith. “There were challenges bringing things up to code. When we opened a light fixture for example, we discovered things weren’t always repaired the correct way. And we had some roof issues. We had to bring those things up to code and make sure they were safe.”

Less than a year after they bought the property it is nearly finished.

“As we speak we are renovating one of our last cottages. We have installed a new floor and updated the inside with bead board on the walls and new paint. We’ve made it more beach friendly,” said Smith.

None of that would have been possible without help and Davidson was quick to credit the two people who have been most important to them.

“We could not have done this 100 percent without the help of Phillip Baker, our handyman, and Lori Todsen, our design artist. We enlisted her help in the beginning to choose some paint colors and we wouldn’t let her leave,” she said.

Davidson, ever the promoter, said the property, which includes two secluded courtyards, is suitable for any type of guest.

“We like to say we’re prime for anyone who wants to have a vacation where it is private,” she said. “We’re down near the end of Sunset Beach where it is quieter.”

“We’re becoming a wedding destination and a place for family reunions. We can sleep up to 50 people so it is great for spring or Christmas breakers. We hit every demographic, we have plenty of young folks who come to Sunset Beach.”

The challenge, according to Davidson, is the future – finding ways to keep people coming back.

“As with anyone who goes into a new industry they’ve never been in before, there is a lot to learn,” she said. “We’re called hoteliers now and we’re constantly trying to find new ways to give our guests a new experience so they want to come back. It is still evolving.”

Smith concurred.

“This is not five-star but if you want old-style Florida with the old Florida beach feel, this is what you are going to get here,” she said. “You get to meet a lot of really cool people too.”

Information about the Sunset Inn can be found at www.sunsetinnti.com.

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