BELLEAIR — Thomas Gavin claims he's ready, willing and able to buy the Belleview Biltmore and restore the historic hotel to glory.
But problems with former clients and state regulators raise questions about his ability to pull off the multimillion dollar purchase and renovation.
Two former clients say Gavin took off with their money and had problems completing basic home design and building projects for them. Their claims are backed by court judgments and state licensing board orders.
"The guy wasn't a straight shooter 10 years ago and something tells me he isn't now," said one of the clients, Barbara Carey, 62, of Deerfield Beach.
Gavin wouldn't address issues with former clients. But in an e-mail Thursday he said, "My family has been involved in different business for a very long time. There are highs and lows in business just like in life."
About a week ago, Gavin shot off an e-mail to Belleair Mayor Gary Katica saying he'd be the next and final owner of the beleaguered hotel. On Monday, he called Katica and town manager Micah Maxwell.
"He specifically said the money was not a factor," Katica said.
He told them construction runs in his blood.
Gavin, who headed a Broward County company called Gavin Homes & Design, had his contractor's license suspended by the state in 2003 following a complaint about abandoning a home construction project for Carey's former next-door neighbor, Stephen Dreiling.
The state Department of Business and Professional Regulation said Gavin failed to return about $19,000 he took from Dreiling to complete the home.
Dreiling's ex-wife, Ann Batchelder, said Gavin took their money but never finished the floors or kitchen cabinets.
"We just didn't hear from him and it was months, and then he vanished," Batchelder said.
The department also found that Gavin failed to refund $1,650 to Carey.
Carey said she became suspicious after Gavin balked about making minor changes and repeatedly asked for more money. She approached another builder and architect who discovered electrical and roof design problems with plans Gavin provided to her.
Both Carey and the Dreilings received court judgments against Gavin.
Carey said Gavin never repaid her. Dreiling had to seek a claim from the state's Construction Industries Recovery Fund in order to get his money back.
What Gavin has been up to since his license was suspended is unclear.
He said he was the chairman of Lifestone Capital Corp., but the state has no record of the company and there is no website.
Gavin lives in an apartment complex in Hollywood, Fla., according to state voter registration records. He is connected to a religious organization called the Christian Millennium Group Inc. and is listed as a pastor. The group is inactive in Florida corporation records. It has a Pinellas County phone number but a Chicago Heights, Ill., mailing address.
Three years ago, Latitude Management Real Estate Investors, formerly known as Legg Mason Real Estate Investors, bought the property for $30.3 million. The Biltmore closed more than a year ago in preparation for a three-year, $100 million makeover. But lawsuits and the lagging economy have stalled the project.
Two Miami investors say they plan to buy the hotel. Daniel Ades and his brother met with town leaders a couple of weeks ago.
Meanwhile, a preservationist who lives in Belleair said there's been a lot of chatter around town about Gavin.
"They're very concerned that he's made the big splash," said Rae Claire Johnson, "and there doesn't seem any substance to it."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155.