Dreams of restoring the Belleview Biltmore are not dead despite sweeping statements by a representative of the group that owns the 114-year-old hotel.
This month, consultant Matthew Cummings said that even if the economy wasn't tanking and even if the cost of restoring the Belleview Biltmore wasn't astronomical, running a hotel on the site would be impossible.
But Richard Heisenbottle, the Coral Gables architect who worked for the Biltmore's previous owner, insists that renovating the historic building is still a worthy project.
"Ultimately, no matter what, it can be a very successful hotel — in the right hands, with the right ownership, with the right marketing, with the right flag," said Heisenbottle, whose firm RJ Heisenbottle Architects is known for historic preservation projects.
Cummings said at least 40 hoteliers told him the location is "terrible" for a hotel.
However, Heisenbottle said he's been talking with four hotel groups that are interested in plans to restore it.
This month, the current owners' vision for the property became clear. At dinner presentations at the Belleview Biltmore Golf Club, Cummings said a luxury townhome community was the best option for the site.
The hotel has been doomed for decades, he said, since condos rose and blocked the view of the Clearwater Bay and since the hotel lost access to golf courses next door. Then it simply became a hotel in a gated community in a small town.
But, just a few years ago, that wasn't the case, Heisenbottle said.
In 2007, the previous owner, Latitude Management Real Estate Investors, formerly known as Legg Mason Real Estate Investors, bought the hotel and its assets for $30.3 million. The costs to renovate the resort and its golf club and its beachfront Cabana Club were estimated at $145-million or more.
Research done for the previous owner by PKF Consulting, an international firm based in San Francisco, supported the owner's vision, Heisenbottle said.
"The project was desirable. The project was viable. The project was justifiable," Heisenbottle said.
Cummings, who said he has a 3-percent interest in the hotel, discounts PKF's study.
"They're the ones that said it was worth $30 million," he said.
Heisenbottle also insists that hotels in remote locations can do well if they're marketed properly. The Biltmore is well-suited for the convention center and wedding markets, he said. "I remain convinced that properly marketed it can be a fabulous success story."
Former Biltmore manager Martin Smith said the hotel's successes and failures over the past couple of decades were linked more to management philosophies and dire headlines than to location.
Built by railroad magnate Henry Plant in 1897, the hotel has changed hands numerous times over the years. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Between 2003 and 2005, under the management of Trust Hotels, Smith said the hotel saw "dramatic increases every year."
It began to falter following reports that developers planned to raze the hotel, he said. In the spring of 2005, DeBartolo Development had the property under contract and the owner of the hotel, a Pennsylvania investment management firm, applied for a permit to raze the landmark.
"Obviously it becomes a challenge when someone says they're going to buy it and level it and the owner does not have a rebuttal," said Smith, who now serves as managing director for Scrub Island Resort in the British Virgin Islands.
Heisenbottle thinks the hotel's stumbling blocks relate to current economic challenges, not its future viability. "The problem is you're trying to do it a very difficult time and you're trying to compete with other opportunities that are much easier to do," he said.
The previous owners said lawsuits filed by neighboring residents delayed the project and made it impossible to get financing before the economy took a dive.
Nearly a year after the property was sold to a group of Miami investors, why is Heisenbottle still invested in the future of the Biltmore?
"I believe it is one of the best projects that my firm has ever done," Heisenbottle said.
The ownership group, which is pitching 80 townhomes on the property, will have its share of challenges beyond the current housing market.
The property is zoned for a hotel. Not only would town leaders have to approve a zoning change, they would also have to grant approval to demolish the hotel, protected by the town's historic preservation ordinance.
Heisenbottle urged residents not to succumb to a rash decision.
"This has been the heart and soul of Belleair since 1897," said Heisenbottle. "You don't make these decisions lightly."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.