St. PETERSBURG — The west end of Central Avenue is the gateway from the beaches to St. Petersburg. Visitors' first impression of the city as they leave sunny gulf views behind and venture into town hits them after crossing the Treasure Island Causeway.
Plenty of history and progress lie ahead, but there on the left side where Central Avenue splits Park Street is a dilapidated, three-story hotel that has sat vacant for six years.
The 1918 Mediterranean Revival hotel supposedly hosted luminaries like Glenn Miller, Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth and Robert Kennedy. The property, at 7401 Central Ave., most recently dubbed the Parkview Hotel, is now considered a foundering mess by many and a great opportunity by a few.
"I just think it's such an eyesore for everybody, and it's going to wreck and ruin," said Treasure Island resident Penny Corrigan, who passes the hotel on her way to and from work every day in St. Petersburg. "It must have all kinds of pests inside there."
She's all for saving history but reasons that if it could have been renovated into something beautiful, that would have happened by now.
"It's a shame. It needs to become a park so everybody can enjoy it, and it would look so much better," Corrigan said.
Because the hotel has historical designation, it's not easy to declare it has no future and tear it down, according to Dave Goodwin, St. Petersburg's planning and economic development coordinator.
"If somebody came in with a demolition permit, that would be highly controversial. I hope it doesn't come to that," he said. "I'm not giving up on it."
He acknowledged that years of sitting empty with no progress is frustrating for neighboring residents and the city as a whole. But the city's only option is to hope a developer invests in renovating it. If the owner applied for permission to demolish it based on the fact that it can't be developed at a reasonable cost, the city would rule to allow or disallow it.
Crystal Bay Properties, headed by Largo resident Mark Tong, owns the hotel. Tong markets himself on the Internet as a spiritual healer who "has the ability to travel in the past or future to observe occurrences" that aid in making predictions.
He envisions the property becoming a wellness center with lodging for patients seeking holistic medical care such as alternative cancer treatments.
"We have an end user who is interested in being a tenant,'' he said. "We are looking for an investor as a first mortgage holder or to partner with us."
Tong thinks the building could become operational for less than $1 million. A previous owner has replaced the plumbing and wiring and updated some of the 66 rooms.
Crystal Bay first bought the 40,000-square-foot structure in 1996 for $590,000. It then sold the hotel and held the mortgage. That buyer sold it to Minneapolis developer Norman Kerr, who defaulted after making some renovations.
Along the way owners have fallen behind in property taxes and received code violations. But they always manage to catch up and clean up.
A year ago, the hotel was listed on an online foreclosure auction. It has also been posted on Craigslist. No takers.
One hope for developing the property lies with Kathy Champion, a veteran of the Iraq War who wants to convert it into a haven for vets and their families.
Champion was the only blind athlete to compete in and complete the St. Anthony's Triathlon this year.
"My goal is to open it into a respite for wounded warriors and their families to come and take a break and transition," she said. Along with guest rooms, the hotel would house resources to help vets with jobs, education and housing around the country.
Veterans receiving treatment at the Bay Pines or James A. Haley VA medical centers could stay there for free, she said.
Champion is trying to raise $250,000 to get a business plan that she would take to lenders to borrow $8 million to rehabilitate the property. Two contractors have toured the building and estimated that's how much is required to renovate part of the hotel and raze and rebuild the rest. She thinks Tong wants too much for the property and is willing to offer $500,000.
That's a long way from his $2 million asking price, he said. The Pinellas County property appraiser lists the hotel's assessed value at $1 million.
"I'm hoping somebody will believe in me," Champion said. "Doing that triathlon shows I'm a determined person. If I can (train for that) in six weeks, give me a chance and you will see I can make this happen."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8785.