Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Business

Opponents, supporters let new vision sink in for Dunedin's Fenway hotel

DUNEDIN — For years, city commissioners and a large contingent of residents had planned and paved the way for a white knight-turned-developer to swoop in and restore the long-vacant Fenway Hotel to its former glory.

Hope shined eternal in November when a Pennsylvania real estate team announced it was negotiating with PNC Bank to buy the 6.4-acre property out of foreclosure and revamp it into a boutique hotel with conference space and condos.

Those dreams were dashed last week when the Tallahassee-based Taoist Tai Chi Society of the United States of America announced it had bought it for $2.8 million, with plans to renovate it into the nonprofit's new headquarters.

Now, city leaders and residents are regrouping, with some warmly welcoming the new vision, some begrudgingly lending their support and others vowing to take their opposition to City Hall.

"Because of the economic development plan that we put together some years ago and ... with all of the residents who have had input on that boutique hotel, that's where our mind-set has been," Mayor Dave Eggers said. "It was something that fit our city, that neighborhood and what the residents had embraced.

"So any disappointment is just relative to what we had in mind. It's a different group so we'll have to wait and see what their plans are."

There's no firm date on when that will happen.

Sean Dennison, the Taoist society's executive director, said the group will start drawing up blueprints and talk with city staff.

The organization, which has offered classes in Dunedin since 2004 and first made a play for the Fenway property last summer, envisions the site as an international conference center where 42,000 members across 26 countries would travel for religious festivals, workshops and formal instruction in tai chi exercise.

The society expects remodeling costs will be "considerable," but so far has no firm estimate, Dennison said. The group will meet with residents as plans progress.

"It's been wonderful the last few days since the announcement," Dennison said, "receiving hundreds of messages from our members around the world — Europe, Australia and across North America — who are excited about coming to Dunedin for their training and study of the Taoist arts, but also to avail themselves of all the wonderful things they've heard of Dunedin."

The news doesn't assuage opponents who decry the proposal's blow to city finances and convention tourism. They also question the group's ability to bring up to code a structure so dilapidated that the foreclosing bank in 2012 had a judge deem it a "public safety hazard."

Over several months, city commissioners had approved several ordinances so Christy and James Bower of Pennsylvania could raze the 1920s hotel and build in its place 33 condos, 88 hotel rooms and 11,000 square feet of conference space.

An analysis by WTL+a economists estimated the Bowers' $15 million project would generate about $53,000 annually in city property taxes plus another $45,000 in sales tax, franchise fees, utilities and other revenue.

The Taoist group says its status as a "charitable religious" organization makes it property tax-exempt.

When word surfaced that PNC Bank had restarted talks with the Taoist society after negotiations with the Bowers stalled, dozens of residents spent several weeks emailing, calling and rallying via a Facebook protest page that drew nearly 400 likes. The Downtown Dunedin Merchants Association mailed a letter reiterating its support for the Bowers.

City Manager Rob DiSpirito also tried to discourage the purchase by warning society officials that commissioners would support only a public hotel there. A historic zoning designation on the site lets the City Commission control property use through approval or denial of a development agreement.

"We really need more hotel rooms to align us for conventions," said DDMA founder Gregory Brady. "That's a really prime waterfront spot not to have it be a public facility and not have it on the tax rolls"

Christy Bower said she did not understand PNC's abruptness, especially given that property sold for a price similar to her offer.

Tony Beneri, who lives down the road from the Fenway on Edgewater Drive, said the surrounding neighborhood is furious. He said the Bowers had met and won residents over.

Dennison says the Taoist group plans to include public event space and partner with local businesses on tourism. And, he said, the "economic impact and the prestige that it brings to a small community like Dunedin to have an international conference center by a religious organization is pretty exciting."

Supporters include Roseann Merriam, a Clearwater resident who suffers from a nervous system disorder and says tai chi exercise has prevented her from ending up in a motorized wheelchair.

Rene Johnson, owner of downtown's The Living Room restaurant, was initially part of the campaign to encourage PNC back into negotiations with the Bowers. Though disappointed, she said she welcomes the Taoist society: "I will appreciate having that historic Fenway have inhabitants again. It's been vacant way too long."

George Rahdert, the St. Petersburg lawyer who bought the Fenway in 2006 only to have his restoration and expansion plans scuttled into foreclosure by the recession and neighborhood opposition, agrees.

"I'm personally delighted that it's been acquired by a responsible organization that will preserve the property rather than tear it down," Rahdert, who represents the Tampa Bay Times, said.

In interviews this week, city commissioners reiterated their previous support for a public, tax-generating hotel and convention space but said they are open to hearing the Taoist group's plans.

Vice Mayor Julie Scales noted that the property's past use as Trinity Bible College's campus starting in 1961, then Schiller International University in 1991 means it hasn't generated property taxes for decades anyway.

Commissioner Ron Barnette said that "whatever transpires, there has got to be a development agreement, a preservation look and feel of that classic hotel." He praised the Taoist group, but said he is skeptical that it should be considered a religion any more than, for example, a Christian singles website.

"I think the question of it being a religious group should be explored critically," he said.

Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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