Lee and Mary Wilkerson stand outside Sarah’s Seaside Cottages on the 25th anniversary of the establishment.
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH – Sarah’s Seaside Cottages at 306 Gulf Blvd. is 25 years old. To get to that age has not been simple. The life and birth of the establishment has been somewhat complicated. It is a story with some international involvement and a lot of hard work and dedication.
The story began in 1988 when Lee and Mary Wilkerson wanted to get some rental property in Florida. They both had educational backgrounds and Lee, who had an architectural background, was working in construction.
“It was natural for us to have this as a sideline,” he said. “Mary grew up in Tampa and always wanted a beach place.”
They were living in Atlanta at the time but soon found a property in Indian Rocks Beach that fit the bill.
“It was a fixer-upper at 810 Gulfside. The original name was the Seashed,” said Wilkerson. “My energy level at the time allowed me to do my full time job as a builder and work on this property. We had full time renters; it wasn’t a vacation resort.”
The international flavor of the story happened with their first property because a Norwegian Bank owned it. In order to buy the property from the bank they had to get the bank to lend them the mortgage money, which it did.
Wilkerson said after they bought and refurbished the property they rented out the five units for $100 a week.
“We saw that as an opportunity,” he said.
Part of that opportunity had the couple move from Atlanta to Florida. They stayed in a one-bedroom apartment owned by Mary’s parents. They bought another rental property and fixed it up.
Then in 1993 the story of Sarah’s Seaside Cottages began in earnest.
“The owner of the property at the time was Lee Butts. I saw him on the beach walking and we got talking and over time became friends,” said Wilkerson. “After he became ill he contacted us and asked us if we wanted to buy the property. We did, but only half, the half at 306 Gulf Blvd.”
Wilkerson recalled Butts’ wife Beverly kept the other half at 308 Gulf Blvd., which she eventually sold, but not to them.
“She sold it to a local man who came in and partied all the time,” he said. “We endured him and eventually he ran out of money and had to sell, so we bought it from him in 1997 and put the properties back together.”
Finally Sarah’s Seaside Cottages was complete. But changes were in store.
“Nine out of 10 inquiries from potential vacationers all said they wanted a pool on the premises. We didn’t have a pool; small properties didn’t have pools in those days,” he said. “So we got the money, built the pool and changed things. It allowed us to increase our rates and compete in the summertime.”
In 1999 the Wilkerson’s bought another rental property, a duplex called the Fillmore. Now they had to fill all the properties with renters and they had to do it in changing times.
“We joined the digital revolution in 1996 with a webpage,” said Lee. “I can remember back then a man walked into the office with his briefcase and told is that for $199 we could reach billions of people on the Internet. We laughed, but we did it anyway and it made a world of difference.”
After that Wilkerson said they realized it was too expensive to market by sending fancy color brochures to every prospective client, so they conducted their business by phone as well as the Internet and it paid off.
“We weren’t afraid to do direct marketing,” he said. “We learned how to sell our product by listening to people and finding out their vision of the perfect vacation. We listened and talked to them.”
The rest, at least up until now, is history. Sarah’s and the other Wilkerson properties have lasted for decades and there is no end in sight.
“We’re the anti-condo people,” said Wilkerson. “The condo experience is the same anywhere you go. We want people to enjoy the experience of being on the ground and it is worth preserving. We want to preserve a vacation lifestyle for people, a lifestyle that is being lost.”
The future gets a little cloudier when Wilkerson, 55, talks about who is going to take over as he and Mary, 54, get older.
“Our daughter Sarah is in her 20s and lives in New York City. She doesn’t seem to have any interest in the properties now, but who knows,” he said. “I want to keep this going in perpetuity. For now we’re trying to build our staff and wean ourselves off our work schedule.”
Both Wilkersons are happy they are doing business in Indian Rocks Beach. As a thank-you they held a 25th anniversary celebration on Nov. 15. Dozens of people showed up. The Wilkersons said they weren’t surprised.
“It is a wonderful community and what sets it apart is the majority of the homes are occupied year round. That’s what makes it a community and visitors actually feel like they are living here,” said Lee.
“We adore IRB,” said Mary. “I lived in Tampa my whole life but I adore IRB. It has been good to us.”
She added that operating rental properties on the beach is special and has been since the beginning.
“We would do it all over again,” she said. “We are catching people at their best week or two of the year. People in other jobs run into others who are unhappy. Broken cars for the mechanic for example. Here they are always happy.”
She said the secret to helping people have a good vacation and encouraging them to be repeat customers is treating them seriously.
“It is a big deal for people that have been saving up all year and are now altogether with their families.”
And it pays off.
“We have a guest who has been coming here, year after year, 18 years in a row, to the same unit. When we asked her why she said her son was conceived here,” she said.
“Everyone is happy so how could you not want to be part of that. If you put your guests first it is magical. What’s not to like?”