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03. Bruce Thompson

Updated: May 15, 2013 - 10:55 am

Posted: May 10, 2013

Some call him "Virginia Beach's Donald Trump," but many will tell you the name Bruce Thompson carries its own weight.

The Norfolk-born developer has jumped a dozen slots to No. 3 on the Power List over the past year, opening award-winning properties, inking a major hotel deal with the city of Norfolk and launching an aggressive bid to obtain and redevelop the 86-year-old Cavalier on the Hill - what city officials say is "the most important property in the city."

"All in all, it's been a pretty exciting year for us," Thompson said.

The frank businessman is not one to be crossed, yet he keeps a smile as he leads Gold Key | PHR Hotels and Resorts, the company he founded 26 years ago.

One of the most notable developments for Thompson over the past 12 months was Norfolk's March announcement that Gold Key will build a $126 million downtown hotel and conference center, a project that has eluded the city for years.

The 300-room luxury hotel, along with its 50,000-square-foot conference center and high-end restaurant, are scheduled to be complete in late 2016. The hotel will be a Westin, a Hilton or a Hyatt, officials said.

Now in his 60s, Thompson, some have said, has the energy of a 30-year-old. He did spend spring break in Cancun.

He closely watches developments in stem cell research because his son Josh has Lou Gehrig's disease. His company donated $3 million last year for that cause and others.

Thompson has dabbled in other areas, too, writing legislation for a statewide tourism growth fund and working closely with the effort to bring a professional sports team to Virginia Beach.

"We're banking on continual growth in the city of Virginia Beach," he said. "I believe that they're going to end up with a professional sports team. I believe that Norfolk and Virginia Beach will be tied together with light rail. I believe that as the economy recovers, the region is going to boom."

Despite his external dealings, Thompson remains focused on his properties, his projects and his people at Gold Key.

The company has 2,300 associates and about two dozen properties - hotels, time shares, restaurants, apartments, office space and retail space. It generated some $175 million in revenue in 2012, a record.

Last June, Gold Key opened the Oceanaire Resort, a $70 million hotel/timeshare property. Last month, Oceanaire received the Project of Excellence Award at the 2013 American Resort Development Association's World Convention.

And earlier this year, Gold Key opened - in phases - the $75 million mixed-use complex known as 31Ocean.

Gold Key has several projects under way, including a $50 million Hilton Garden Inn, which is scheduled to open next spring at 35th Street.

The company is also nearing its opening of a 12,000-square foot restaurant complex at 33rd and Atlantic known as "Big Italy," which will feature four Italian restaurant venues.

Thompson's flagship property is the Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront, which was built in 2005 through a public-private partnership. City tourism leaders, including Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Jim Ricketts, have noted that the high-end property has helped attract bigger spenders to the Oceanfront.

"In terms of convention business that we bring into the city," Ricketts said, "it's in demand all the time. [It's] so successful at times that we have a hard time getting a room block out of them."

While 2012 was a stellar year for Gold Key, 2013 hasn't gotten off to such a good start.

"We just came through the worst quarter that we've had in 10 years," Thompson said. "I don't know what's going on right now. I'm attributing it to weather."

The company is looking to rebound, and, in the long term, has its eyes on some of the most valuable real estate in the region. This includes the Cavalier, the 86-year-old hotel, and its adjacent beachfront property now on the market. The fate of the property has been caught up in a legal battle unresolved at press time.

"I really want that old hotel and that front lawn to remain," Thompson said. "We don't have to make a whole lot of money there; we'd just like to do something for the community."

Thompson said the thing he's most proud of over the past year is getting state and city approval for the his development of "Camp Grom," as an extension of JT's Grommet Island Beach Park and Playground for EveryBODY - the nation's first wheelchair accessible beachfront park and playground. Officials are hoping to open it by 2014.

"I have to tell you that my greatest satisfaction still remains going down to the Oceanfront and seeing kids with disabilities playing with kids that are healthy out on the beach," he said. "There's nothing quite like that."