Friday, May 25, 2018
News Roundup

Belleview Biltmore development group drops request for one financing tool, will try another

BELLEAIR — The prospective owners of the Belleview Biltmore hotel have dropped two parts of their proposal to rejuvenate the 115-year-old landmark.

This week, the group withdrew its request for the town of Belleair to establish a Community Redevelopment Area on the 20-acre property.

Also, the prospective owners eliminated from their plan, for now, a new "east wing" they had said they would build next to the old hotel. That would reduce the potential number of hotel rooms on the redeveloped property from 460 to 312.

Belleview Biltmore Partners LLC, the South Florida group that wants to purchase the property, previously indicated that the CRA designation was a tool they needed to help finance their $225 million restoration of the former hotel.

In a CRA, any taxes collected on increased property values can be plowed back into redevelopment. Called "tax increment financing," the developers had hoped to use it for the debt service on a $20 million bond. The Town Commission went along with the idea, even unanimously declaring there was blight on the Biltmore property, a step required before Belleview Biltmore Partners could ask the County Commission's approval for a CRA.

But county commissioners only gave approval for the town to study a CRA. They noted that most CRAs are in downtowns, and they worried about setting a precedent by approving a CRA for one property that isn't in a downtown.

Then this week, the town of Belleair circulated a staff-written report that showed the renovated hotel would come nowhere near generating a large enough tax increment to cover debt service on a $20 million loan. At best, it could support only $10 million.

The final straw seems to have been a town Finance Board meeting Tuesday, when a number of residents opposed creating a CRA on the hotel land.

Belleview Biltmore Partners got the message. On Wednesday night, the leader of the development group, Coral Gables architect Richard Heisenbottle, called Town Manager Micah Maxwell and withdrew the CRA request.

Instead, Heisenbottle said Thursday, the group will apply for an existing Pinellas County program that provides tax exemptions for 10 years to those who restore historic properties in communities that have qualifying ordinances.

"It's a very logical direction to go," Heisenbottle said, "and will ease the concerns of the community."

However, Belleair will have to amend its own ordinance, which allows tax exemptions only on residential historic properties. Heisenbottle will ask the town to add commercial historic properties to the ordinance.

The Belleair Town Commission, which has its regular meeting Tuesday, had expected to vote then on the developers' CRA request.

"I would expect it would be abandoned," Maxwell said.

Heisenbottle and his partners, tourism professional Charles Kropke and real estate developer Hector Torres, announced in April that they had acquired rights to buy the Belleair hotel property and planned to restore it to its former grandeur. The agreement allows for a six-month due diligence period, and the clock is ticking.

Heisenbottle, Kropke and Torres were greeted as saviors when they unveiled their restoration plan at a town meeting in April. They said then that they were confident they could obtain financing for the project.

They asked for, and generally have received, support from town leaders and residents worried that one of Pinellas County's most treasured landmarks will be lost. The current owner of the property, BB3 Holdings LLC, asked earlier for a permit to demolish the hotel.

The Belleview Biltmore, known as the "White Queen of the Gulf," has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979. It closed in 2009 and has visibly deteriorated since then.

Heisenbottle said that despite the hangup over the CRA, his group still expects to close on the purchase of the property in September.

Diane Steinle can be reached at (727) 445-4152 or [email protected]

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Published: 05/25/18