New owners plan to revamp the Tierra Verde Resort

TIERRA VERDE

The new owners of the dilapidated and vacant Tierra Verde Resort time-share complex are planning to build a 100-room hotel, a 10,000-square-foot restaurant, a pool and make renovations to the existing marina, docks and seawall.

Tierra Verde Marina Resort LLC recently paid $14.4 million for the resort, which sits on 10 of the 18 acres the city of St. Petersburg annexed in 2008 in a controversial move led by former Mayor Rick Baker.

"That particular sight always has been a landmark for people going from the Panhandle to Key West. It's an easy place to get in and out," said Gary Boesch, an investor in the new ownership group. "We understand the marina business. We see that we can make the marina business work there."

The Tierra Verde Community Association is holding a meeting for residents to hear more about the owners' plans and express their opinions on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Island Chapel at 1271 Pinellas Bayway S.

The new owners bought the 50-year-old resort from A&S Tierra Verde Ventures, an investment group headed by Steve Sembler, chief executive officer of the Ballast Point Group. Sembler was one of a few Tierra Verde property owners pushing for the city's annexation and redevelopment plans that would allow for more intense development.

In July a judge rejected the city's plan because it would increase the amount of time it would take residents to leave the barrier island during a hurricane. Under the city's proposal, more intense development including 691 hotel rooms and up to 518 homes would have been allowed. In November then-Gov. Charlie Crist and his cabinet upheld the ruling that blocked new development guidelines.

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Initially, the Tierra Verde Resort was a balmy 1960s getaway for guests such as Frank Sinatra, Phyllis Diller and Liberace. Guy Lombardo was a frequent entertainer and owned part of the lobby night club.

The memories may linger, but the resort's original buildings will be razed. Boesch is already in talks with several companies interested in operating the restaurant. His group will act only as the landlord. They may set up a similar deal with a hotel company or sell the property outright to an operator. He is also talking with national chains about opening a boutique hotel, probably with four floors. Though nothing is set in stone, he said it should be something along the lines of a Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express.

"I live here, I have no problem with it," said Frank Lauro, longtime resident and administrator of the Tierra Verde Community Association. "The property has fallen into disrepair over the years. In my opinion anything would be an improvement."

He also is pleased that a 100-room, four-story hotel would coincide with the existing development restrictions. The homeowners association and Pinellas County appealed the annexation to the circuit court and are awaiting a decision.

The new ownership group will not have renderings at the upcoming community meeting but Boesch says they are planning something first rate that will complement the island. They have already met with the county, the city and the mayor for preliminary talks.

Mayor Bill Foster could not be reached for comment.

"Until we have a meeting of the minds (and know) what the homeowners association would like us to do and what we can afford to do we haven't made any commitments at this point," he said. "There is no hotel in Tierra Verde so a small boutique hotel might be the thing that will appeal to a lot of people for when guests come down from the north."

In other words, your in-laws can stay at the hotel down the street instead of in your guest room. Not a bad way to start winning support.

"It has to be profitable for the new owners and it has to blend with the community also," Boesch added. "If we are all in agreement we will go forward with it."

If not, there is another buyer waiting in the wings, he said.

Boesch, who has other successful marina and real estate ventures, has been involved in numerous businesses in Pasco, Hernando and Pinellas counties over the years.

He has a checkered history in insurance and voluntarily gave up his Florida insurance license in 2002 after a state investigation of his practices. While he didn't admit wrongdoing, records show he signed a statement agreeing to have nothing more to do with Ameri-Life, one of the companies he founded and is permanently barred from obtaining a licence in the future. In 1991 Ameri-Life paid the state a $30,000 penalty and agreed to stop certain marketing practices regarding Medicare supplements.

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Paying fines is common in the insurance world, Boesch said in a recent interview about the Tierra Verde property, adding that less than one tenth of one percent of his customers made complaints.

Boesch and another investor in Tierra Verde Marina Resort, Christopher Longrie, are also involved in Fisherman's Paradise, a 385-foot fishing barge that transports guests around the Gulf of Mexico to fish and dive. It boasts four-star accommodations, a pool, three bars and a masseuse. In late December the boat broke loose from its moorings and was drifting off of Indian Rocks Beach before it was towed to shore.

Meanwhile, back at Tierre Verde, another parcel of property that the city annexed, is in foreclosure. Encore Bank is close to taking ownership of Tierre Verde Marina Holdings LLC's 7 acres, which includes a marina with 88 boat slips.

"We're hoping the bank or the new owners would be willing to negate any further annexation attempts by the city," Lauro said. "The main thing that has come out of all this is the lawyers have made a ton of money."

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@sptimes.com. Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

New owners plan to revamp the Tierra Verde Resort 02/08/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 8, 2011 5:32pm]

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