The Gulfport Neighborhood Guide: Madam president

click to enlarge A rare moment of relaxation for busy innkeeper and Gulfport booster Lori Rosso. - David Warner
David Warner
A rare moment of relaxation for busy innkeeper and Gulfport booster Lori Rosso.

Lori Rosso knows everything about her adopted hometown, which means you can get a lot of good dish on Gulfport while she’s dishing out delicious egg casserole at Sea Breeze Manor, the inn she’s owned for 12 years on Shore Boulevard. But she won’t be working the breakfast shift much longer; Ybor’s La Creperia is opening a Pinellas location at Sea Breeze in October, taking kitchen duties off of Rosso’s grateful hands.

Taking a rare moment to relax in the inn’s gracious front parlor, Rosso is at once warm and wary — a combination of traits that has served her well in a career that has taken her from working in the White House to purchasing a B&B at the age of 35 in a town she barely knew — and where she went on to serve as president of both the Chamber of Commerce and the Merchants Association.

In short, she’s gone from creating “a second-by-second schedule for the leader of the free world” to giving “talking points to the mayor” — and she couldn’t be happier about it. “I’m married to Gulfport,” she says.

But after 12 years of not only running Sea Breeze but being its chief cook and bottlewasher, she’s visibly relieved at the prospect of letting someone else worry about feeding her guests. When the season’s at its height and there are 16 people coming down for breakfast at once, “it’s more than one person can handle.”

And the early part of 2014, she says, was “a season to blow away all seasons.” She was so busy she lost 15 pounds. On the July weekend we met she was fighting a cold, a rare enough occurrence that when it prevented her from making her usual rounds — “I walk Gulfport every single day” — it got people wondering, “Where’s Lori?”

It wasn’t always this way. When she first got to Gulfport, she acknowledges, “I didn’t know a soul.”

But she’s nothing if not a fast learner.

A Long Island native, she grew up immersed in both business and politics — her father, an entrepreneur and county legislator, was a presidential appointee for Reagan and both Bushes. Graduating from high school at 15, she got a degree in political science from American University and by her 20s was working in the West Wing for George H.W. Bush. Her fancy title — Assistant to the Assistant to the President for Public Liaison and Intergovernmental Affairs — boiled down to advancing presidential trips and “avoiding big-ass faux pas.” A series of Washington jobs followed, but in 2002, she decided to follow through on a dream of opening an inn. With the help of her parents, who now live in Tierra Verde, she searched all over the world and wound up buying Sea Breeze.

Memorabilia of her Washington years — a photo of her with her father and President Bush, a U.S. Senate blanket — are displayed in a corner of the parlor. “I debated putting this stuff up,” she says, “but it’s my past,” and this is her home as well as her guests’. And when she gets pushback — she recalls overhearing a lesbian couple gasp, “Oh my God, she worked for George Bush!” — she makes sure to show them the nice card she got from the Clintons.

But after D.C., isn’t Gulfport a little, well, quiet?

Her response is firm.

“I effect change here. There I didn’t make one iota of a damn.”

Sea Breeze proved successful right out of the gate. The fallout in the economy that followed was a challenge, but Rosso carried on, and now she says the city has entered a new era.

“About three years ago, I knew we’d become a destination — along with Dunedin, Tarpon Springs, and downtown St. Pete.”

Rosso and the Merchants Association, whose members operate in the waterfront district and along Gulfport Boulevard, have played a big role in raising the city’s profile. And Rosso has been reaching out to local businesses from the time she was head of the Chamber, doing what she called “corridor meetings” to find out what was happening on 49th St., 22nd Ave., 58th St., and Beach.

She’s also a living testament to “Buy Local.” Her nails, for instance — one black nail with white polka-dots and the rest red on the day we speak — are done at The Perfect Ten on Beach Boulevard. And, like any good innkeeper, she’s a font of local info, like where to buy refreshments for a party (Mangia Gourmet, try the hummus), and where to eat (she admits a special fondness for Smokin’ J’s pig wings).

She’s thrilled by the good things that have been happening in Gulfport lately — the fact that Visit St. Pete/Clearwater kicked off National Tourism Week this spring in Gulfport for the first time; the historic landmark designation for the Casino; the “killer” Fourth of July celebration.

And even as she gets ready to step back from kitchen responsibilities at Sea Breeze, she’s seeing the partnership with La Creperia as another opportunity to market her town. She and her friend Manny Alvarez, the Ybor real estate whiz, are hoping to strengthen the Gulfport/Ybor connection with interbay endeavors like a bocce tournament. From Sea Breeze’s vantage point across from the beach and the bocce court, Rosso and her guests would have the perfect porch-sitters’ view.

But knowing Lori Rosso, I suspect she wouldn’t sit still for long. 

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