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Financial problems beset Fenway renovation project in Dunedin

DUNEDIN — The future of the historic Fenway has once again clouded after a $12.5 million deal to provide financing for its renovation collapsed.

Prominent developer George Rahdert said blame for that may lie with Robert Masson, who claimed connections to a California wine fortune and agreed to take control of the resort.

Yet it also may lie with former City Hall staff, who Rahdert said resisted redevelopment and led the project's lender to get "tired of waiting."

"Essentially it was four years of delays in the Dunedin city process," Rahdert said. "At times, it was sort of like nailing an amoeba to a wall."

Rahdert filed a civil lawsuit last month against Masson for damages and interest. Three messages left at numbers listed in business records for Masson were not returned Wednesday.

The Fenway, opened in 1925 as a tony coastal resort, was sold in 2005 for about $8.2 million by Schiller International University. Rahdert, a St. Petersburg attorney who represents the St. Petersburg Times on First Amendment issues, planned to reopen it with 250 suites, a day spa and fine dining.

Yet former city staff and residents near 453 Edgewater Drive, who questioned what the tourist spot would mean for their neighborhood, became an early obstacle that slowed the project, Rahdert said.

RBC Centura lenders, which wanted to wait for a final development agreement before funding more construction, backed out of the project.

"It just took too long. In that period of time, the financial markets pretty much melted down," Rahdert said. "They gave up on the project and revoked their commitment for funding."

Rahdert said the process has been smoother under City Manager Rob DiSpirito and other new planning staff members.

Masson, who Rahdert said he met through an intermediary, offered last year to cover the loss of capital and buy the Fenway's developing company, 1 AVS, for its original price and about $4 million in taxes, plan and engineer costs. Masson would become the revamped resort's chief operator; Rahdert would stay on as a minority partner and handle the hotel's continuing historic designation.

Masson signed the contract in March, agreeing that he would pay for the property after Rahdert finalized the site's approval with the city. Commissioners approved Rahdert's plan this summer, calling the Fenway's future a "major undertaking for the community." But Rahdert said Masson's money never showed.

Rahdert said he is now "scrambling" to find substitute financing. City staff said Rahdert told them of the setback but remain confident in its development.

"Doing a project like this and bringing it to bear is tough," said Mayor Dave Eggers. "I continue to be excited about the possibilities."

DiSpirito said the lawsuit could help "break the logjam and get the job done."

"George still seems pretty optimistic about the project, that one way or another he'll eventually have the funding in line to do this," DiSpirito said. "I'm certainly hoping that falls into place."

Rahdert claims Masson breached the contract and misrepresented his capacity to pay for the property. Masson told Rahdert he had an extensive background in hotel management and, as a member of the Paul Masson wine family, owned airlines, hotels and a small cruise line.

State business records tie Masson to a number of now-dissolved dining, hotel, cruise and flight companies. His most recently registered business, Prime 551, sits on Clearwater Beach's Gulf Boulevard. A voicemail from a listed number called it a restaurant and beach bar.

"These are bad times," Rahdert said. "I have quit trying to predict the future."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4170.

Financial problems beset Fenway renovation project in Dunedin 12/09/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 10, 2009 2:02pm]
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