BELLEAIR — Matthew Cummings said he had hoped to be the "guy on the white horse" who saved the 115-year-old Belleview Biltmore. But the affable representative for the landmark's owners, touting his expertise in construction and historic renovations, recently declared that saving the Biltmore is virtually impossible.
The most practical option, he insisted, is razing most of the 820,000-square-foot hotel to make way for 80 new townhomes.
Whether he had the ability to save the hotel in the first place is debatable. Last week, after he was questioned about his background, Cummings admitted he has no experience with historic preservation projects.
It also appears that he never was a developer, said Rae Claire Johnson, a resident who is working to save the Biltmore, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
"If you haven't had that experience and historic preservation experience, I don't see how you can be the white knight," she said.
The Times also discovered that some information Cummings provided about his career and his education is, at best, misleading, and, at worst, inaccurate.
Some of the projects he called "historic renovations" merely involved construction on old buildings or new additions.
Initially, Cummings became defensive when asked what historically significant structures he had restored to national preservation standards.
"What has that got to do with anything?" said Cummings, 62, who has a small ownership interest in the Biltmore. "I'm not telling people anything about historic structures; I'm telling them whether a hotel of that size is feasible on that site."
Other items about Cummings' claims and background raise questions:
• He told residents about two companies he was involved in, but failed to mention that neither was registered with the state Division of Corporations.
• He gave misleading information about renovation work he said he managed at art museums at Harvard University, and created a false impression that he went to graduate school there.
• He admitted to a long battle with the Internal Revenue Service, which led to liens filed against him totaling more than $76,000 for seven tax years. He said he settled with the IRS and just owes about $20,800 now.
Belleair Mayor Gary Katica, like a few other town officials, said he wasn't fazed by Cummings' tax issues. "It's not really a factor to me unless the guy's a criminal," Katica said.
Cummings' background and soft-spoken nature have impressed some residents and officials, including Katica.
"He's very capable of what he's doing," Katica said. "He's got the experience and he's got the polish."
Katica said he respects how Cummings listens to people in the community and tries to accommodate them, unlike one previous developer who behaved "like a bull in a china closet."
Over the past few decades, Cummings has lived mostly in Florida and Massachusetts. The Dunedin resident said he started his career digging ditches for his grandfather's construction company and worked in construction management and consulting jobs. He came to Pinellas County in 1978 and stayed almost a decade. He came back to Florida for a while in the 1990s and has lived off and on in the state since then.
Newspapers have mentioned his involvement in a few high-profile projects. In the early 1990s, he served as a consultant for Charlie Daniels Western World, a planned amusement park in Pasco County that never was developed. And in the mid-1990s, he worked as a project manager for a construction company in charge of renovating Lincoln Road, a multi-block pedestrian mall in Miami Beach.
His current boss, Raphael Ades, whose office is on Lincoln Road, learned about Cummings because of that project. Ades, one of the Miami investors who owns the Biltmore, was impressed by Cummings' experience and personality. Cummings' former boss, Leon Heron, a Tennessee-based developer, called Cummings "a real honest, straightforward, knowledgeable fella."
Last month, Cummings hosted three public presentations at the Belleview Biltmore Golf Club, where he hyped his background and promoted construction of Queen Anne-style townhomes on the Biltmore property.
He said he hoped to save a small portion of the old hotel and turn it into a museum. And he passed out fliers for a "company," he said he formed called the Museum Team. He later said the entity isn't registered with the state because it's not really a company, but an offshoot of his consulting business, Klecker Cummings LLC, which isn't registered either. Cummings said he began the registration process Wednesday.
He also told residents he managed renovations at two Harvard museums, the Fogg Museum of Art and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Similar claims were made in the flier and on his business website, where one caption read, "Interior and exterior of the Fogg Museum of Art at Harvard University … construction managed by Matt Cummings." He told a reporter he did the projects in the 1980s when he was going to Harvard.
After Cummings was told museum officials have no record of renovations at that time, he said the renovations were not structural, but involved "interior renovations." He later said the work might have been done in the 1970s.
On his business website, Cummings mentions his educational background, saying he "is a graduate of the Real Estate Development and Analysis program at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design."
He was never admitted to the graduate school, but took a six-week, noncredit class, Fundamentals of Real Estate Investment Analysis, through the university's executive education program.
Cummings also told residents he did a renovation of Bay Pines VA Hospital in Pinellas. His website shows a picture with a caption saying the hospital was "fully renovated" by him. He told a reporter he did that project around 1978 for Sainer Constructors.
When the Times told him that it found information indicating that contract involved only new construction, he said, "Yeah, but it had to look like the old building."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.