LAKELAND — Sean Strano hovered outside a conference room at the Lakeland Center, his business cards in hand. Like everyone else packed in the hallway, he wanted to know who bought the Red Rose Inn, the beloved hotel in Plant City known for its kitschy commercials, doo wop dances and Gone With the Wind-themed decor.
It hit the auction block Friday, the second day of a bankruptcy liquidation sale of the assets of the Madonia family, who spent more than a half-century building a fortune in the tomato farming business, only to see it all slip away.
Batista and Evelyn Madonia, who became Plant City royalty and gave generously in town, have hundreds of creditors and owe at least $100 million, said Jerry McHale, the bankruptcy court-appointed trustee overseeing the sales.
Nearly $49 million was raised Thursday in the auction of more than 7,000 acres of farm and development land, packing houses and camps for workers. The family's assets are vast and auctions continue this month in Virginia and Florida.
Friday's auction had homes, lakefront lots, a convenience store and a warehouse. But the Red Rose was the major draw. Bidder 348 won with a bid of $2.1 million. It was $100,000 less than the Madonias paid in 2002, not to mention the $4 million they spent in renovations.
But who was bidder 348? Was he or she in the room with the closed door? The auction was so fast and the bids were so slight, nods with chins barely lifted, it was difficult to keep track in the room of about 70 bidders.
Or did 348 bid online?
The auction winners were sequestered doing paperwork. The other auction items racked up a total of $1.63 million.
Strano owns a landscape management company and hoped to be the one to clean up the Red Rose for the new owner. A blond woman walked out of the room.
"Did you find out anything?" Strano asked her.
"It was some company out of Minnesota," said Donna Jean Crocker, a Realtor representing Plant City clients. She bid $2 million for the Inn on their behalf.
She said auctions tend to be fluid after the bidding stops, with people having to actually come up with the money.
"It ain't over till it's over," she said.
And she was right.
As of Friday evening, the Red Rose's future was still uncertain.
The bid of $2.1 million was not immediately accepted by the trustee, said Carl Carter, spokesman for Murray Wise Associates, the auction company handling the sales. It was not rejected, Carter said, but the official word is that the bid has been "taken under advisement" with no decision deadline announced.
So it seems the Rose is still up for grabs, if anyone wants to spend more than $2.1 million.
It did not appear the Madonia family was there. The youngest son, Batista Madonia Jr., said before the auction Friday that he was upset with the low bids being accepted. He and his family never wanted to liquidate. He said they filed for Chapter 11 in March because they wanted to reorganize, to sell some assets, pay creditors and keep working. He feels like the case has been hijacked out from under them.
"I don't think there has ever been (a bankruptcy case) done this quickly," Madonia said.
He said his parents, now in their 70s, left their home state of Pennsylvania decades ago with $1,020 to their names, believing in the sunshine hope that Florida would be their path to the American dream. He and his siblings grew up at their packing plant in Mulberry, with his mother cooking them lunch and dinner in a little on-site kitchen. He said his parents never took a vacation and reinvested what they made into the business. He said they didn't live extravagantly.
"We are a good family," he said.
Madonia said that when his sister, Laurie, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, everyone took a step back from the business to care for her and search for a cure, taking her everywhere from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to the Vatican. She died last year. Her illness, coupled with bad harvest seasons from freezes, a hurricane and a battle with cheap Mexican tomatoes, led to their financial difficulties, Madonia said.
His parents are crushed.
"They struggle every day," Madonia said. Losing Laurie, he said, devastated them.
Madonia said they want to farm again and will continue to fight what they can in court.