Local developer Mike Cheezem, who has successfully built such high-profile projects as the Sandpearl resort on Clearwater Beach and Ovation condominium tower in downtown St. Petersburg, revealed Friday that his firm is poised to purchase the historic Belleview Biltmore hotel in Belleair.
Cheezem said he intends to build a residential development on the property and believes that most of the former hotel will have to be torn down.
In an exclusive interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Cheezem said his company, St. Petersburg-based JMC Communities, has a contract to purchase the property that provides a six-month period to meet with town leaders, neighbors and other stakeholders in hopes of crafting a development plan that satisfies everyone.
"We're very excited about the opportunity," Cheezem said.
"We realize how important it is for the community," he said. "We feel we have a responsibility to do something that will remember the grandeur of the Biltmore."
The purchase and subsequent development would breathe new life and revenue into a town that leaders say has suffered since the Belleview Biltmore, known as the "White Queen of the Gulf," closed in 2009.
Built by Henry Plant in 1895, the 400-room, all-wood resort housed presidents, celebrities and generations of Pinellas County residents and guests. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A large contingent of neighbors, former guests and admirers have been fighting for restoration of the structure, or at least preservation of a portion of it, but no one has come forward with the money to restore it.
The current owners, Miami investors Raphael and Daniel Ades, have said the building is too far gone to be rehabilitated. An engineering consultant recently told the Times that 25 percent of the former hotel would have to be demolished and a "significant portion" reinforced or repaired.
Cheezem said Friday that it is too early to say whether he might try to preserve any portion of the building.
He said he plans to base his development proposal on feedback from stakeholders, but said it would not exceed density proposed last August by the Ades brothers, who wanted to build 32 townhomes and 136 condos.
On Tuesday, Belleair commissioners are scheduled to discuss zoning changes that would allow such construction. Only hotels and single-family homes are permitted under the parcel's current land use and zoning designations and height restrictions.
The Ades brothers' Clearwater attorney, Ed Armstrong, said Cheezem's demonstration of "significant financial depth" and track record of churning out successful projects even in tough economic environments made him an "attractive" buyer.
For his part, Cheezem, who was born and raised in St. Petersburg, said fond memories of attending functions at the Biltmore with his parents drew him to the property.
With multimillion dollar condominium and hotel projects dotting the Tampa Bay area, Mike Cheezem has built a reputation for upscale development successes.
Among his projects are the Florencia condominium in St. Petersburg, the Bellamy condominium in Tampa and the Belle Harbor condominiums on Clearwater Beach. He has also built projects outside of the Tampa Bay region.
The closing on the Biltmore deal, Cheezem said, is "contingent upon us within six months feeling like we've got a green light to move forward with a new development."
Neither Cheezem nor Armstrong would reveal the purchase price.
Belleair Town Manager Micah Maxwell and Mayor Gary Katica said they look forward to meeting Cheezem and hearing his plans.