BELLEAIR — Heavy rains brought street flooding to the town of Belleair on Tuesday night, but that didn't deter a standing-room-only crowd from attending a Town Commission meeting.
At stake was the future restoration of the 115-year-old Belleview Biltmore Hotel, which its prospective buyers said probably wasn't going to happen unless the town approved an ordinance to give them a tax break for improvements to the historical property. The town currently gives such tax abatements only to historic residential structures, not commercial ones.
In the end, the Town Commission approved the proposed ordinance on a 3-2 vote.
It was a contentious meeting in a divided town. The dialogue was often peppered with laughter, hearty applause, nasty insults, and a few "out-of-orders."
On one side: Biltmore supporters, who want to see the landmark hotel restored to its former grandeur. They see the renovation as a stimulus that would bring jobs and raise property values.
On the other: opponents to the ordinance, worried that the town could go belly-up from giving nearly $5 million in tax exemptions over 10 years. They fear the mammoth hotel with no beach is a dinosaur that cannot survive the times.
Resident Martin Bialow said the hotel is forever doomed because of its location. He said it can't be compared to other historic hotel properties like the Renaissance Vinoy Resort overlooking the water in bustling downtown St. Petersburg or the Loews Don CeSar Hotel on the Gulf of Mexico in St. Pete Beach.
"Belleair is a bedroom community," he said. "This hotel has failed. It needs to be torn down and not preserved because we've seen it's not going to work."
The ordinance allows up to a 100 percent tax exemption for the cost of renovating a historical property for up to 10 years. There is no obligation for the Town Commission to give the tax exemption — that is negotiated at the completion of the renovation. The ordinance also gives up to three years for the completion of renovations.
Preservationist Bill Stokes said the commission had two options.
"You can either display the leadership and vision by granting the requested tax abatement and be heroes forever," he said, "or you can deny this reasonable request and risk being villains forever in the eyes of citizens near and far, the history books and your descendants.
"If the project does not proceed, Belleair will eventually have another unneeded, soulless, gated community. A newly restored Belleview Biltmore would provide long-term economic stimulus of taxes, prestige, jobs, tourism, social and recreational opportunities, preservation credibility and overall excitement — unlike condos."
Commissioner Mike Wilkinson, who voted in favor of the ordinance, didn't think there were any villains on the board.
"I think we're all here for the right reasons," he said. "However you come down on this issue, you're going to tick off half the people.
"All we're doing is putting a word 'non-residential' on an existing ordinance to allow someone to come in here and attempt to rehab a hotel. If they can't get the money, if their plan is incorrect or isn't doable, I don't think a bank will give it to them and then it's a moot point."
Mayor Gary Katica, a "no" voter, said he was fundamentally against government partnering with private enterprise.
"The truth of the matter is, the hotel being restored, we'd have money flowing in in four or five years. Townhouses or condos would be eight or nine years. But there is no doubt in my mind that these people will go on no matter what we say tonight and the town won't be on the hook for a dime."
Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto, the other "no" vote, called on the ownership group to provide more financial information.
"I think there needs to be more transparency," he said. "As soon as they're forthcoming, I think that we could research it, and more of (the) town would be behind it."
Piccarreto said he's not opposed to the hotel.
"I'd like to see a successful hotel at that property with private funds," he said.
But Deputy Mayor Steve Fowler said by passing the ordinance, "We're simply allowing the process to move forward."
Commissioner Tom Shelly said most towns would welcome a $125 million investment.
"There will be no tax abatement until the hotel gets a certificate of occupancy, and that's the time they negotiate it," he said.
After the meeting, Rae Claire Johnson, president of the Friends of the Belleview Biltmore, said she thought the ordinance was perfect and long overdue.
"In this economy, every town is looking for an economic stimulus and we were fortunate enough to get one dropped in our lap," she said. "If they don't move forward, this property could languish for another 10 years. The worse this problem gets, the more the homeowners' property values will fall and as they fall, our tax revenues fall."
Correspondent Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at [email protected]