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The graceful old Fenway Hotel in Dunedin blighted by trash, vandals, squatters

DUNEDIN — The former splendor of the historic Fenway Hotel is now blighted by graffiti.

Broken glass, concrete, shingles and other trash lay scattered across the once-lush lawn.

Police reports document neighbors' complaints about children and vagrants climbing through shattered windows or rotting doors to play or sleep inside the hotel.

Relief is on the way. A judge has appointed a receiver to oversee upkeep while the Fenway is entangled in foreclosure proceedings.

City officials say the appointee, Bruce Keene, has already begun meeting with Dunedin code enforcement to establish a regular maintenance schedule. Officials anticipate the move will help cure concerns from residents, law enforcement, firefighters, the bank and the city about repeated vandalism, trespassing and code violations at the waterfront landmark.

"In its current condition, there are a number of code violations, so we plan on cleaning those up and securing the property," said Keene, president of Franklin Street Management Services, a commercial real estate and property management firm. "There are no big plans for improvement or anything right now. It's just a matter of getting control and preserving the property as it is."

Pinellas Circuit Judge Anthony Rondolino appointed Keene on May 15 at the urging of PNC Bank, which postponed an April foreclosure action while it completed a corporate merger, taking over RBC Bank.

PNC officials said in an emergency motion for a receiver that they hadn't been able to reset the auction date because the hotel's owner, George Rahdert, ignored their requests to access, inspect and appraise the property at 453 Edgewater Drive as needed to make sound bidding decisions.

The bank couldn't legally access the property because Rahdert still owns the hotel. Rahdert had envisioned restoring the 1920s hotel to its heyday when he purchased it for $8 million in 2006. But the project was derailed and Rahdert now owes the bank $10.8 million in loans, interest and other fees.

Rahdert said he sank tens of thousands of dollars into the property for things like architectural planning, repairs and regular lawn mowing as he scrambled to secure another buyer, business partner or other funding source to turn the Fenway into a high-end resort.

He abandoned his efforts in February. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Rahdert denied PNC's claims that he had been uncooperative.

"When they set it up for sale, I thought it was time for me to let go … to avoid getting sideways," said Rahdert, a preservationist and attorney whose firm represents the Times on First Amendment and business issues.

In making its case that the hotel's condition was diminishing its value, PNC listed the concerns of Dunedin's former fire marshal about broken windows and dismantled fire safety devices.

The bank also cited the 23-page code enforcement violation notice that Dunedin sent to Rahdert in January. Photos accompanying the violation document the deterioration.

"The neglected conditions of the structures and property is a blighting effect for the surrounding neighborhood," the violation notice said.

The Times last week also obtained law enforcement reports showing Pinellas County sheriff's deputies responded to the hotel at least six times regarding alarms, juvenile trouble, suspicious persons and vehicles during the first four months of 2012.

Sheriff's deputies who responded April 5 to a neighbor's complaint about juveniles trespassing saw an adult male flee the building. Authorities found a bed in a second-floor room, along with fresh food, men's clothing and other items — evidence that transients have been living inside the vacant building. (The suspected vagrant was eventually arrested on charges that he stole wire and copper piping, reports show.)

In a memo to Dunedin law enforcement officers and city staff, Pinellas deputy W. Spencer Gross warned those who must enter to use extreme caution while navigating debris and sharp objects on the floor and hanging from the ceiling. Gross' report said a member of Keene's firm told deputies he would recommend a chain link fence for the property to help secure it.

According to Rahdert, the state has preliminarily approved recommending that the hotel be placed on the National Register of Historic Places once renovation work begins. For a time, it was the site of Schiller International University.

If a third-party investor fails to outbid PNC at auction, the lender will take back possession of the property, giving the bank authority to start negotiating with potential buyers.

City Manager Rob DiSpirito wouldn't give specifics but said at least one serious buyer is eyeing the property and has been in talks with the bank.

"It's, from what we can see, a very legitimate hotel developer with experience in renovations. And that's exactly the type of person we want interested," DiSpirito said, "so we're going to nurture that and keep our fingers crossed."

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

The graceful old Fenway Hotel in Dunedin blighted by trash, vandals, squatters 06/02/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 2, 2012 3:12pm]
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