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Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Time for aging Biltmore hotel to come down

Belleair town commissioners will get another chance next week to make the right decision about the future of the Belleview Biltmore hotel property.

Faced with a room full of vocal preservationists, the commission voted 3-2 last month to delay for six months a decision about a zoning designation affecting the property’s future. That put on hold a promising plan by a respected local developer to buy the property and build condos and town homes while possibly restoring a piece of the once-grand hotel.

After a few weeks of reflection, it appears at least one of the commissioners who voted for the delay is having second thoughts. At a meeting Tuesday, the commission is expected to reconsider the previous vote. We think the commission should reverse its previous decision and get behind the proposed zoning designations that can allow the developer to move forward, even if that means losing all or most of the hotel.

Just 10 years ago, preserving the 117-year-old hotel seemed plausible. But the ravages of weather and neglect have rendered the wooden structure too costly for any developer to completely restore and make a return on the investment.

Although that’s a shame, it’s the reality town commissioners must confront as they make an emotional decision that seems certain to result in the loss of a signature building that defined the town for generations.

Built in the 1890s by Henry B. Plant, the 800,000-square-foot hotel has hosted U.S. presidents, British royalty, Babe Ruth, Thomas Edison and countless entertainers.

Less than a decade ago, visitors were still wowed by the Queen Anne-style architecture, the impressive ballroom and wide hallways. But hurricanes in 2004 punched holes in the roof, and distant owners never made the repairs needed to keep water from pouring into the hotel during heavy rains.

It closed in 2009, and mold now grows on the walls. The floors are slanted and riddled with holes.

The closing left a hole in Belleair’s tax rolls, too. When open, the hotel generated as much as $250,000 a year in property taxes and utility fees. That’s a big hit for a town with a $6 million operating budget.

“Enough is enough,” says Belleair Mayor Gary Katica, who wants the town to move forward with approving the new zoning designations and getting the property back on the tax rolls.

St. Petersburg developer Mike Cheezem has a contract to buy the property from the Miami-based owners but needs the higher-density and mixed-use zoning designations for his plan to work. He is considering plans that might restore a portion of the old wooden hotel, or that pays homage to the hotel in some other way.

That seems like the best anyone can hope for now that years have passed without a viable plan for the hotel’s preservation, which would cost upwards of $200 million.

We strongly support historic preservation, which can add character, appeal and commerce to a community. But preservation efforts must be realistic.

Town commissioners should do what’s best for Belleair and approve the zoning designations needed by developers to return that property to the tax rolls and save at least a bit of the Biltmore’s grandeur.

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