Belleair officials give investors an extra year to save historic Belleview Biltmore hotel

04/18/12 Janelle Irwin
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Plans are moving forward in a town nestled between Largo and Clearwater to restore a historic hotel. Belleair’s 115-year-old Belleview Biltmore was set to be demolished until a group of investors came forward with plans to purchase it. Now those investors have been granted a one year extension on submitting building plans to the Belleair City Commission.

"I just want to say to y'all, and y'all...HOORAH!"

And so it went. Resident after resident followed Sally Meadows who is retired from the Navy and now lives in Belleair. Each was thrilled that the battle to save the Belleview Biltmore might finally be coming to fruition. But it could take a while. Richard Heisenbottle, front man for the Belleview Biltmore Partners, said the group needs to time to apply for countless permits.

“With this we’re in a position, clearly, up until a year from now, to get our permits and go forward. That gives us enough time to go forward and do what we have to do and we’re thankful to the commission for understanding that.”

Heisenbottle said he hopes the one-year extension ends up being more than enough time to start construction.

“For right now our general timeline is that within 6-months we have to close on this property. There’s no ifs, ands or buts. We have to. We’re doing everything to make that happen. Within 6-months after that, we’ve got to have our hammers flying and, as the Mayor said to me, boots on the ground.”

But some Belleair residents didn’t think the group of three investors should take any more time to get renovations rolling. Demolition by neglect, some called it, because after sitting vacant since 2009 the historic hotel has only fallen further into disrepair. Linda Brinkman said they already have plans and they need to just get going with them.

“The hotel is in a desperate situation right now and it really needs somebody like you to take care of it. I’m sure that the rest of you agree with me. It is the white queen on the Gulf and we need to keep it that way. We need to do everything as expeditiously as we can to make our dream come true for the town of Belleair.”

She wasn’t alone. Others followed to say enough is enough. They want the landmark they say started the town up and running again. But Lori Adams cautioned her fellow residents to be patient.

“What we’ll do is we’ll work with them. I have been involved in this since some of you weren’t even on the commission yet. I just want to recognize one of the things that Sam Casella is working on. It states in our comprehensive plan that under historic preservation we are to assist property owners of historically or architecturally significant housing in applying for and utilizing state and federal assistance programs and also provide technical information.”

Without the time extension that allows investors to also start securing Tax Incremental Funds from Pinellas County to help with the renovation, Coral Gables architect Richard Heisenbottle said the project couldn’t happen. And if he and his two partners give up, the Belleview Biltmore could still fall victim to the wrecking ball. Tom Shelley, a Belleair city commissioner, said plans to demolish the hotel are still on the back burner.

“It is somewhat contentious and they’re moving forward with their demolition permit as plan B. If the hotel re-development doesn’t happen, they plan to come to us with a demolition request.”

But as long as that request can be staved off by the Belleview Biltmore partners, Shelley said he looks forward to the finished product.

“They envision it as a $146 million remodel with LEED certified – at least gold – with very effective energy efficient appliances, insulation throughout.”

Shelley and his wife were married at the Biltmore, so he has a vested interest in seeing it restored. And he admitted he’d like many more couples to be able to have their weddings in it. But he’s not the only one with a back story. Charles Kropke, one of the three investors, works for a company in Coral Gables that saved another Biltmore Hotel. Now he said that location welcomes Presidents, Senators and other dignitaries on a regular basis.

“People couldn’t figure out how it would ever make any money. It wasn’t located on the beaches. It was an old hotel. It had a lot of challenges. It had had multiple owners. Promise after promise, commission after commission, group after group and still the wrecking ball threatened it. A group of local investors got together. They did a renovation. They failed. Another renovation was up. People were tired. They were saying, ‘I think it’s time’. And a second renovation happened and that renovation held.”

Investors wouldn’t say exactly how much renovations will cost, but said $225 million is a reasonable estimate. Their plans include renovating the current Cabana Club into a boutique hotel and keeping the property’s three existing cottages. They also plan to keep with the hotel’s original style as much as possible.

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