Sunday, June 24, 2018
Business

Biltmore purchaser wants officials to support 2008 restoration plan

BELLEAIR — A prospective buyer of the Belleview Biltmore is hoping town officials will continue to back a 2008 plan for restoration of the 115-year-old hotel.

If not, Richard Heisenbottle is worried his team will have to start from scratch and the restoration project may never happen.

On behalf of Heisenbottle's group, Belleview Biltmore Partners LLC, the current hotel owner has requested an extension of the project development order originally approved in 2008.

Commissioners will consider the extension at Tuesday's Town Commission meeting.

"Having the development order in place is pivotal to having the project go forward," said Heisenbottle, a Coral Gables architect whose firm is known for renovations of landmark historic properties in South Florida.

Heisenbottle also worked for the previous Belleview Biltmore owner, Legg Mason Real Estate Investors. He remembers a difficult battle four years ago, when commissioners unanimously supported Legg Mason's plans to restore the hotel, but not all residents did.

In June 2008, three Belleair residents sued the town and the hotel owner because they disagreed with parts of the owner's plans. In May 2009, a panel of judges in the appellate division of the 6th Judicial Circuit Court in Pinellas ruled against the residents.

Then, that same month, Sand Key residents appealed Clearwater's approval of a plan to replace the Biltmore's beachfront Cabana Club restaurant with a six-floor hotel. In 2010, a panel of Pinellas County circuit judges denied their legal challenge, too.

But by that time, the economic downturn was well under way and project representatives said it was virtually impossible to secure financing to complete the hotel restoration.

The litigation, Heisenbottle said, "derailed the entire project."

Supporters of the hotel are hoping to avoid a similar scenario now.

If the town's previous approval of the project development order is not extended, Heisenbottle's team will have to submit a new development package to the town before renovation efforts can move forward, said Rae Claire Johnson, who heads Friends of the Belleview Biltmore. And that could open the door to more lawsuits, more delays and further deterioration of the hotel.

Both Johnson and Diane Hein, who heads another Biltmore preservation group, have been sending out emails urging supporters to show up at Tuesday's meeting.

In December 2010, a group of Miami investors bought the Biltmore, its golf club and Cabana Club for about $8 million. Three months ago, the owners, who had pitched plans to build more than 150 homes on the hotel property, filed a request with the town to demolish the hotel. Town officials decided their application was incomplete.

Then early this month, Heisenbottle's team announced it had a contract to buy the hotel. His partners from South Florida are real estate developer Hector Torres and tourism professional Charles J. Kropke. All are expected to attend Tuesday's meeting.

Both Mayor Gary Katica and Deputy Mayor Stephen Fowler said they plan to do whatever they can to save the hotel. Of all of the people who have brought forward plans for the hotel, "Richard Heisenbottle is the one I have the most trust in," Katica said.

Commissioner Tom Shelly said he also plans to support the extension because he thinks the majority of Belleair residents, about 90 percent, are in favor of preserving the Biltmore.

The 260-room hotel, known as the "White Queen of the Gulf," has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979.

Heisenbottle and his team plan to restore virtually all of the enormous wooden structure, which closed in summer 2009. They also want to build a new 153-room east wing in the style of the old hotel and restore the historic Magnolia, Palm, and Sunset Cottages on the property. Their plan includes more improvements to the Biltmore's golf club and the development of the Cabana Club property into a 38-room boutique hotel.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155. Go to tampabay.com/letters to write a letter to the editor.

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