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Architect who wants to save Belleview Biltmore announces contract to buy historic hotel

BELLEAIR — Three months after the owner of the historic Belleview Biltmore filed a request to raze most of the 115-year-old hotel, Richard Heisenbottle, a Coral Gables architect who wants to restore it to its former grandeur, announced Monday he has a contract to buy it.

Heisenbottle's company, Belleview Biltmore Partners LLC, signed the purchase and sale agreement with the owner, BB3 Holdings LLC on Friday, according to Heisenbottle and current owner Daniel Ades. Ades declined further comment.

"We're going forward with great confidence," Heisenbottle said. "We're going to need everybody in the community's support and commitment to make this a reality."

The agreement gives Heisenbottle's group six months to perform due diligence and close on the purchase. Heisenbottle said he could not disclose the purchase price.

Heisenbottle's firm is known for its renovations of landmark historic properties in South Florida, including the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, Colony Theater and Freedom Tower.

The current Biltmore owners, Miami investors including Ades and his brother, Raphael, bought the hotel, its golf club and its beachfront Cabana Club on Sand Key for about $8 million in December 2010.

The 260-room hotel, known as the "White Queen of the Gulf," has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979. Since 2004 it has been at risk of demolition at least three times.

Monday's news came as a relief to those who want it preserved.

"It's very exciting and beyond wonderful that the hotel is going to be restored again," said Diane Hein of Save the Biltmore Preservationists Inc.

Rae Claire Johnson, head of Friends of the Belleview Biltmore, said Heisenbottle is the most experienced suitor the hotel has had in quite a while.

"I'm glad it's in Richard's hands," said Johnson.

Belleair's deputy mayor, Stephen Fowler, said he is "thrilled" and he pledged his support.

Heisenbottle is confident his team will secure financing to restore the hotel and its assets — projects that could cost more than $145 million.

Heisenbottle worked for the previous Biltmore owner, Legg Mason Real Estate Investors, which bought the hotel and its assets for $30.3 million. That company's plans to restore the hotel never came to fruition.

In line with Legg Mason's original vision, Heisenbottle and his team plan to restore virtually all of the massive wooden structure, which closed in summer 2009 and has been visibly deteriorating. The hotel's spa and pagoda-style entrance, which do not contribute to the hotel's historic designation, will be removed.

Heisenbottle's team also wants to build a new 153-room east wing in the style of the old hotel and restore historic cottages on the property. Their plan includes more improvements to the Biltmore's golf club and the development of the Cabana Club property into a 38-room boutique hotel.

Heisenbottle's partners are real estate developer Hector Torres, who couldn't be reached for comment, and tourism professional Charles J. Kropke, both from South Florida.

Kropke co-owns Coral Gables-based Dragonfly Expeditions, a company that runs cultural, ecological and historical tours in South Florida and the Caribbean. Kropke said he sees great potential in the Biltmore.

"We can basically market all of the Tampa Bay region as a mecca for corporate tourism," he said.

State records show that in 2005 and 2006, Kropke was an officer for the World Literacy Crusade of Florida, a tutoring program that uses the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

But Kropke said he has no links with the Church of Scientology. He said he's a Catholic and didn't even realize he was listed as an officer of the World Literacy Crusade. For a few months, he said, he was involved with another organization called Girl Power, a company that is affiliated with the World Literacy Crusade.

Kropke said his partner Torres is "very high profile in the city — he has built one of the most beautiful additions to the Miami skyline," the 67-story Marquis Residences & Hotel Tempo.

In October, Heisenbottle announced he had a plan to save the Biltmore, but he had remained virtually mum since then.

Belleair Mayor Gary Katica praised Heisenbottle's work. For a while, Katica said, he was unsure about the fate of the Biltmore.

"I'm much more optimistic about it now," Katica said. "I think it's time and I'm just very hopeful."

But he won't believe it until he sees "boots and shovels on the ground."

"Then we'll know it's for real," he said.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4155.

'The White Queen of the Gulf'

Railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant began construction in 1895. The hotel opened on Jan. 15, 1897. "The White Queen of the Gulf" has 41/2 stories with three principal sections, each 400 feet long, according to savethebiltmore.com. The Biltmore is the largest wood-frame building in Florida. The hotel's roof has been in disrepair since the storms of 2004. Layers of shingles have chipped away. The hotel closed in 2009 and has been at risk of demolition at least three times.

Architect who wants to save Belleview Biltmore announces contract to buy historic hotel 04/02/12 [Last modified: Monday, April 2, 2012 10:35pm]
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