BELLEAIR — For weeks, town commissioners debated whether this small town could afford to give the prospective owners of the Belleview Biltmore hotel a hefty property tax exemption in exchange for their restoring and reopening the 115-year-old landmark.
Tuesday night, the debate ended in a 3-2 vote to approve the exemption and enshrine it in town law.
Mayor Gary Katica and Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto voted against the ordinance. Piccarreto was particularly critical, saying the town has not done enough research on the idea, which the commission first began discussing in July, and that a decision was being rushed to meet the prospective owners' deadline.
Biltmore Partners LLC asked for a change in town law that would make it eligible for the tax exemption by the time it closed on the hotel purchase, scheduled for Oct. 1.
The town already offered a tax exemption on the assessed value of improvements made to historic residential properties. Biltmore Partners wanted that opportunity extended to historic commercial properties as well. That's what Tuesday's final vote accomplished.
Now, if restoration of the hotel is completed, Biltmore Partners can apply for the exemption on up to 100 percent of the value of the improvements for up to 10 years.
The exemption is "discretionary, not obligatory," Town Attorney David Ottinger told commissioners. The property owner would apply for the exemption after the improvements were completed and a negotiation process would determine the amount of the exemption and the number of years.
According to estimates, the exemption could mean a revenue loss for the town of up to $5 million total over a decade. Some critics thought that would be too big a blow for the town, which is already short of cash because of the economic downturn.
But advocates, including most residents who spoke at Tuesday's meeting, said the Town Commission should not pass up the opportunity to have the Belleview Biltmore restored to its former grandeur.
The hotel, known as the "White Queen of the Gulf," is on the National Register of Historic Places and housed presidents, celebrities and generations of Pinellas County residents and their guests.
The hotel closed in 2009 and the wooden structure has been deteriorating rapidly. Restoration plans by previous owners or developers have fallen through.
Biltmore Partners LLC, consisting of architect Richard Heisenbottle and real estate developers Hector Torres and Charles J. Kropke, have indicated that with the tax exemption, they could make their restoration plans work.
However, some city officials and residents have criticized the partners for not being transparent enough about their plans and financing.
If their effort fails, any future owner of the Belleview Biltmore who restored the hotel would be eligible to apply for the tax exemption.
Diane Steinle can be reached at (727)445-4152 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.