BELLEAIR — The Belleview Biltmore hotel sits empty behind a chain link fence, amid a golf course and clusters of condos that sprouted up toward the tail end of the historic hotel’s 112-year run. Since before it closed in 2009, neighbors, the town and developers have fought over what should be done with the aging grande dame, nicknamed the White Queen of the Gulf. The sprawling wooden hotel was built by railroad tycoon Henry Plant in 1897 and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979. A new proposal by the Ades Brothers, who own the property, would demolish the hotel and put homes and condos where the Queen Anne-style building languishes under layers of dust and overgrown foliage. The proposal to demolish the Biltmore made waves at a Town Commission meeting this month, but four of the five commissioners voted to explore the idea out of what they say is necessity.
Those who want to see the the old hotel preserved are scrambling to find someone who wouldn’t mind spending the estimated $150 to $200 million it would cost to restore the building to its former glory. But as locals dread the thought of another residential development, the deteriorating building is costing neighbors and the city millions. Most say something has to be done. “Just about anything is better than what is there right now,” said Jim White, president of the Belleview Biltmore Homeowner’s Association. “People have lost patience.” The blight the aging hotel has brought to the area has significantly brought down property values in the affluent town, wedged on the gulf coast between Largo and Clearwater. When the hotel was open, it brought in $500,000 a year in taxes and as much as another $300,000 a year in utility fees, but now it brings in just $45,000 a year in taxes, Belleair Mayor Gary Katica said.. “That’s a big bite out of our [$6.2 million annual] budget,” he said. “We’ve had to lay off people ... and the millage rate has to go up each year to carry it.” Those who own houses and condos in the lush gated community that skirts the historic hotel property don’t see a manicured luxury resort suited for presidents and movie stars anymore, let alone a massive sparkling pool that led into a world-class spa. They see a roof whose shingles were torn off during the 2004 hurricance season, unkempt shrubberies and fountains filled with algae-laden rainwater. Mother coyotes have even birthed litters of pups in that fountain. Getting the hotel’s owners to perform even basic maintenance has been a challenge, the mayor said. “We’re pushing them to maintain the shrubberies and the lawn,” he said. “That’s an endless thing.” Inside, the hotel is in bad shape, too. Rainwater has eaten away at the ceiling in places, and the wood floors are ridden with holes. About all that’s left in there are the wooden lobby bar, the wallpaper, miscellaneous furniture, a few antique glass chandeliers and the Tiffany stained glass that lines the hallways. Shop windows on the first floor still advertise a patisserie and a checkerboard-floored ice cream parlor. Everything else — even a row of pay phones that was once in the lobby — has been stripped and auctioned. By the time the hotel closed in 2009, it had been running at a loss for decades after a series of owners failed to turn a profit. Efforts to restore the hotel were several years underway by 2009. Two nonprofit groups, Save the Biltmore and Friends of the Belleview Biltmore, worked to save the resort from DeBartolo Development’s 2004 bid to level it. In 2009, developer Legg-Mason offered to restore the hotel, but a lawsuit brought by three residents over the plan’s layout stalled the proposal until time ran out on the project. Some say there’s still hope. “The building still can be saved,” said Rae Clair Johnson, head of Friends of the Belleview Biltmore. “Anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t know what they are talking about.” While the dilapidated roof and walls need to be torn down and the rooms expanded to meet modern standards, the Biltmore’s superstructure is still sound. That’s because the hotel was built with sturdy heart pine wood. Last year, preservationists thought they’d won the battle when South Florida architect George Heisenbottle proposed buying and renovating the property, but that effort, estimated to cost between $130 and $150 million, has been at a standstill. Heisenbottle could not be reached for comment. Supporters say a restoration would not only preserve a historic landmark, it would also stimulate the economy, much as the way the hotel did decades ago. “If the hotel gets improved, that would be an incentive for businesses to move into the area,” Johnson said. The activists fought to get a historic preservation ordinance on the books, and won back in 2005. Developers now have to convince the city that knocking down a historic building is in residents’ best interest. The Ades Brothers, who could not be reached for comment, are attempting to do that. “They were pretty straightforward about their desire to not necessarily be in the hotel business,” said Belleair Town Manager Micah Maxwell. Town leaders, though, aren’t sure tearing down the Biltmore would be in their best interest. “It’s really a feeling of mixed emotions,” Katica said. “You look at it and say it should come down, but what would be really best for the town would be if it was restored.” A restoration would likely take three or four years to complete, while the town wouldn’t likely see and condos or houses for another eight years. Meanwhile, property values and government revenues would suffer. White said he thinks the city should have a “two-track” approach and continue pushing for the renovation as the developer’s proposal moves forward. It’s better than just letting the hotel sit there, he said. “I think people, in general, would love to see it restored, but there have so many ... different proposals, and it’s gone through a lot of hands,” he said. “So there’s a lot of loss of hope on the part of the residents.” “Hope springs eternal, and maybe I should buy Lotto tickets.” Residents, however impatient, face a long wait, no matter what. It would take the Town of Belleair more than six months to green-light the Ades Brothers’ proposal, and it is not clear whether another effort to restore the old building will gain momentum within that time. Community meetings on the development proposal could start as early as September. Katica said he expects the issue to come up during public comment at Town Commission’s meetings, even when it’s not on the agenda. Town leaders say they welcome that discussion. “We do want to have some conversations with the public about what they want their town to look like in the future,” Maxwell said. [email protected] (727) 215-7999 Twitter: @kbradshawTBO