The Sommer Building

Heidi and Mike Campbell knew a relocation downtown would be no small feat. And neither would tackling the additional plan of renovating a historic building in the downtown district as a store, a venue space, and a home. But when the Campbells saw the potential in the Sommer Building. they couldn’t imagine it not being done.

Photography by Tina Sargeant

After meeting at the University of Miami, entrepreneurs Heidi and Mike Campbell moved from Coral Gables to Winter Haven in 2004 and then on to Lakeland in 2006. Together they own the Stationery Loft and Gift Boutique on N. Kentucky Avenue along with a number of popular businesses in the area. Their love of Lakeland led them to support and invest in both the community and downtown. They recently completed an extensive renovation of the circa 1920, three-story Sommer Building. They have reinvented this historic location to serve as a home for both themselves and their business, together with a 2,500-square-foot event venue. Maybe not by birth, but Heidi and Mike are clearly Lakelanders through and through. This is their fascinating story.

The Lakelander: Did you grow up in Lakeland? And, were there any stops along the way that you would like to tell us about?

Heidi Campbell: Mike and I met at the University of Miami. I was working on my MBA and he was in law school. We married in 1986. We have three children: Katie (25), Robert (23), and Christopher (19). Katie is an engineer and lives in NYC working for Citibank in their corporate offices. Robert lived at Noah’s Landing (Noah’s Ark), a community for special needs adults, until September, when he moved back home. Chris is double majoring in math/physics at UF. In 2004, we moved to Winter Haven, and on to Grasslands in 2006 so two of our children could attend Bartow IB.

In 2008, Stationery Loft opened (the rest is history). Mike had his own law office until 2015 when he and a partner opened the Steak ‘N Shake on the east side of Winter Haven. He and his business partner also own Sal’s Garage (two locations, also in Winter Haven). While he continues to practice law in the areas of personal injury, class actions, consumer fraud, and aviation, he no longer maintains an office outside of The Sommer Building (230 N. Kentucky Avenue).

TL: What are the most important aspects and features of the Lakeland community for you and your family? 

HC: Frankly, Lakeland feels like home. It’s of similar size to Coral Gables which was our previous home for over 20 years prior to moving here. We love so much about our community: IB is one of the finest schools in the country. The myriad places we can go for a walk, the wonderful local restaurants, easy access to the arts, and proximity to Tampa and Orlando. And last, but certainly not least, the wonderful people that live here. We are continually impressed by how kind, loving, and charitable our community is. There is so much that is wonderful, it’s hard to list it all.

TL: Your home and business are now combined on N. Kentucky Avenue. What is it about this location that attracted you to buy and renovate in the downtown area?

HC: We have always thought it would be amazing to live and work in the same location like people did decades ago. We love old buildings and historic areas. When we found 230 N. Kentucky Avenue, we immediately saw its potential. In fact, our romance as a couple and our romance with the building culminated with the closing on the purchase Valentine’s Day 2014. Little did we know how difficult the renovation process would become. Its success was finally due to the commitment of several key city employees, Rodda Construction, and Mike (who took a sabbatical from his other endeavors to oversee its construction the last year).

The process took almost three years but is well worth it. We love living downtown! We walk out our door to so much of what is interesting in Lakeland. In fact, I drive my car only two to four times per month. It is amazing what downtown offers, from the [Lakeland Downtown Farmers Curb Market] to local shops, so many great places to eat, theatres, outdoor events, holiday celebrations, First Friday, food truck rallies … the list just goes on and on, all right out our front door.

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TL: How long have you been in business with the Stationery Loft? What things do you most like about your business?

HC: The idea of Stationery Loft came about when my youngest informed me that I needed to find something else to do. I had been one of those helicopter moms who volunteered for everything at school, and he was ready for me to move on after his elementary years.

I had always loved paper; pens; journals; and unique, interesting gift items. In Miami, we entertained a lot, but here, there was nowhere to go for invitations or paper-related items. I found myself driving to nearby cities to find the things I loved. Mike was the one who pointed out that there was a need in our town for the type of store I had frequented in South Florida. He encouraged me to put my skills and creativity into play and explore the possibilities. I took a trip to Atlanta in January of 2008 and prayed the whole drive there. I needed to know if I was on right path or if I needed to let the idea go.

Everything on that trip made it clear that Stationery Loft was going to happen. The name came about from the original vision for the store. I had found a location with a loft. The gift area was to be downstairs; the stationery / invitations went in the loft, hence the name. As it turned out, the building had roof leaks. Water does not mix well with paper, so I regrouped. It was too late for the name change as I had already incorporated and started receiving my purchases from the first market trip. So, I kept the name.

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What I love most about my business are the people we are blessed to serve. I have had the privilege of doing invitations on so many weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, showers (bridal and baby), graduations, and some very unique celebrations. I have become friends with many of my customers and rejoice daily in someone’s happy celebration. How many people get to say they are in the business of happiness? I love what I do. I have been blessed with the most wonderful staff as well.

With the venue, we are expanding our reach into the “Happiness Business.” It is so rewarding to see people come and go with stories to tell, all adding to the history of this amazing building.

My previous career experiences were in sales-related positions and management (insurance and law), both of which served as fertile training ground for what I do now.

 TL: Was this your first renovation project?

HC: We have owned 12 different homes. Six of them were major redos, and six of them were new construction. Additionally, we fully renovated a two-story office building in Miami that housed Mike’s law firm prior to moving to Polk County. We never thought we’d ever be in a three-year project, nor would we recommend it.

TL: When you decided to move your business from South Florida Avenue, were you only focused on downtown, or did you consider other locations?

HC: As lease renewal approached on the South Florida location, I started to explore options. I stumbled upon The Sommer Building and called Mike from the car. He was intrigued. We scheduled a viewing and fell in love. As we explored the building, the idea of the venue came to light. I had managed a catering firm in Miami as my first job out of school, so it seemed like a natural choice to put a venue on the second floor. My Stationery Loft brides had often expressed a lack of venue choices in Lakeland, so the dots just seemed to connect, and Mike was enthusiastic.

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 TL: There often seems to be an “uh-oh” moment in all renovation projects. Were there things associated with this project that you did not expect, things that caused you to say “uh-oh?”

HC: Yes. They both involved contractors. The city partnered with us to discover and remedy the problems. We are very pleased with the structural soundness of the building and the quality of construction that Rodda executed.

TL: Sometimes a place can generate a sort of kismet experience when you see it. Did you feel that somehow this particular building and location were destined to be part of your future when you found it?

HC: Mike definitely did. He loves the fact that he lives in a building that was built 100 years ago and that he is personally responsible for its current state of “coolness.” I am a workaholic and loved the idea of a 47-step commute to work.

TL: We have to talk about the dreaded “B” word: budget. Without revealing any numbers, did you have a budget in mind to accomplish your goals?

HC: Yes. We blew it. Enough said.

TL: About the renovation itself, you essentially gutted the building and renovated from the ground up. Did you have an architect or builder involved in the process, or did you do it yourselves? How did you work out a floor plan and design for three different floors?

HC: We built a brand-new building within the original four walls. Our 11 other homes had prepared us for how we wanted to live. We know what we like, and the third floor and the rooftop patio embody all of it. Our architect converted our ideas to reality. With few exceptions, the entire building is what we envisioned from the beginning.

Our main goal was to give the venue the tallest ceiling possible and put the window sills at bar height. The original walls are so deep that the window sills double as high-top tables. Much of what we did was to turn the second floor into the kind of venue our kids would be dying to have their wedding receptions in. We think we succeeded.

Stationery Loft was easy. It’s a wonderful retail space that was designed as a blank canvas. It evolves every season based on fixture placement.

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TL: There always seems to be tradeoffs during renovation. Were there design needs that had to be considered for the separate spaces? Furniture or other fixtures that you wanted to ensure inclusion in the spaces?

HC: Our considerations varied based on what we were talking about. Construction: we were required to bring the building to current building code based on the mixed usage (retail, assembly, residential), including fire, electrical, structural, and plumbing.

Regarding materials, we worked very hard to use sustainable, high-efficiency products whenever and wherever possible.

Regarding lifestyle, we started the project with three kids who spent a lot of time at home. By the time we finished, we were empty nesters.

Regarding décor, we were consolidating three homes, so we were able to keep our favorite items and let go of others. We designed the rooms to accommodate our favorite furniture.

 TL: What aspect of the construction and renovation process did you find to be the most challenging and the most rewarding? Did one person take the lead on the design and decorating issues? Did you have a timeline for completion and move-in that was critical?

HC: I think we agree that the most difficult thing was dealing with our early hiring choices. Fortunately, we became much more astute at spotting the good (and bad) in the construction industry as the years passed. Our timelines were blown so many times that we both surrendered to His will.

For me, the most rewarding was getting Stationery Loft’s certificate of occupancy just in time to open the evening of the Holiday Walkabout. Mayor Wiggs remains my hero! For Mike, it was the day Dan Gargas, the city’s building official, hand-delivered the final certificate of occupancy. Mr. Gargas has earned both of our respect. Our mutual favorite was seeing the kitchen completed. We love our kitchen! 

As for design and décor, we used a veto system. I have a slight visual/perceptual deficit, and architectural plans are difficult for me to visualize. Therefore, Mike handled construction / system / mechanical / execution decisions, giving me veto power. When it came to décor, I took the lead, passing veto power to Mike. There’s one issue we could not reach a compromise on … the laundry room. It remains incomplete.

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TL: The renovation landscape is littered with wounded relationships and marriages. Do you have a survival secret that you would like to share with us?

HC: Two things: 1) We never fell out of love the same week. 2) We meant the covenant, “Till death us do part.” Jokingly, neither of us was willing to commit a capital offense.

TL: Knowing what you know now about the buying, renovation, and remodeling process, would you do it all over again?

HC: That’s a hard question. Downtown is awesome. Living here is even more awesome! However, this one took a lot out of us. But we both agree, we would do it again, but very differently. We gained lots of wisdom and are willing to share.

 TL: What are some of the things you like the most about Lakeland and the community in general?

HC: Mike loves all of the people he runs into when he’s in our garage on Trader’s Alley, especially Saturday mornings.

TL: Can you compare and contrast some of the positive aspects of Lakeland to other places you have lived or visited?

HC: Lakeland embodies much of what we loved about Coral Gables and has a small enough population to keep it real and easy to live in. It lacks congestion and traffic. By contrast, it also lacks some of the diversity that we loved about South Florida, especially in restaurants, but that is continually improving.

We tell the kids frequently: “We painstakingly chose this place as home. We challenge you to find a place that’s better.”

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TL: Has your new location worked out as well as you had hoped and planned?

HC: More and better. There were two big surprises: 1) The train noise is virtually nonexistent. We soundproofed and it worked (YAY!). 2) There are so many more parking places than we ever knew existed. Kentucky Avenue parking is difficult; downtown parking is not difficult at all.

Business-wise, it has worked out very well. I love the new location and the ease of living here. I do miss seeing many of my South Lakeland customers who, on a weekly basis, stopped in on their way to Publix. I do love having met so many new and wonderful customers that frequent all that’s happening downtown. I especially love walking to work

Personally, living downtown is so much more fun than we ever expected or previously experienced. There is never a lack of things to do.

What is most surprising is how quiet downtown is at night. We finish most nights relaxing on our rooftop patio with our poodle, Charlie, looking out over this wonderful city, watching the stars, and just being grateful.