BELLEAIR — If the prospective owners of the Belleview Biltmore don't get a requested tax exemption, their planned historical renovation of the former hotel may not move forward, spelling potential doom for the 115-year-old "White Queen of the Gulf."
That's the message that real estate developer Hector Torres and his partner Charles J. Kropke, two of the three principals in the ownership group Belleview Biltmore Partners LLC, brought to Tuesday night's Belleair Town Commission work session.
"If you give me the tools, I can be ready," Torres told Belleair commissioners.
Belleair has an ordinance that allows property tax exemptions for 10 years for the assessed value of improvements that are made to historic residential properties.
The Belleview Biltmore Partners want the town to include historic commercial properties in that ordinance too — properties like the Biltmore.
They're also asking for a longer time period to finish the construction because of the size and scope of the project.
Torres said he isn't a gambler, just a developer willing to take a calculated risk by restoring the massive wooden structure to its former splendor. And now he's asking the town to be a partner and help make the project viable by granting the tax exemption.
"I'm asking you to make a small sacrifice," he said. "You have no risk, unless we're successful."
Making a project eligible for such a tax break doesn't automatically grant a tax break. Instead, that gets decided after the renovations are done.
In the meantime, a deadline looms. Oct. 1 is the planned closing date for the partners to buy the property from its current owners, BB3 Holdings LLC.
The current owners had wanted to demolish the landmark hotel, noted for its Queen Anne style of architecture. Even though it's been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979, the "Queen's" head has been on the chopping block several times before.
A passionate group of Belleair residents filled the seats at Tuesday's Town Commission work session as commissioners discussed whether to take up the developers' proposal at their Aug. 21 regular meeting. Votes are not taken at work sessions.
Some residents expressed concern about more traffic, the risks if the project isn't completed, and a lack of financial information about the investors.
Some said they worry how a small, cash-strapped town with annual property tax revenues of about $3.4 million can give up potential revenue streams of $477,000 a year for up to 10 years. That represents roughly 14 percent of the town's taxable value, said JP Murphy, assistant town manager.
Resident Tim Mariani said he's not sure the whole thing makes sense for the citizens of Belleair.
"It's a huge stretch for a small bedroom community to be subsidizing, with taxpayers' (money), the development of a private investor," he said.
Lil Cromer called herself a "nonpreservationist."
"The preservationists think with their heart, not with their head," she said before the meeting started. "I'm an accountant. I look at the numbers. I'm a realist."
But others were loyalists to the "Queen."
Roger Peters, who said he has 40 years in the construction industry, called the Biltmore — in its present state — a disgrace. Closed in 2009, it has been deteriorating ever since. He encouraged the commission to help make the hotel a beautiful, viable showpiece once again — a place where he can bring his grandkids.
"This is the toughest construction loan market in a while. If these guys can convince people to invest $125 million, we should cheer them on and celebrate their victory," Peters said to much applause.
"Every state in this union is looking for businesses to come into their towns and build factories, hotels and other facilities. This project will generate nearly 2,000 jobs for the local community and county, and tremendous revenues result from this particular investment.
"This town is not investing one dime," he continued. "You're just not collecting additional tax revenue for a specified period of time."
Jim White said it's a "no-brainer." He said his condo overlooking the hotel has lost 50 percent of its value. He predicted it would rise instantly as soon as restoration began.
In the end, commissioners said they'll consider the proposed ordinance on Aug. 21. It remains to be seen how they'll vote.
One potential sticking point: the fate of the Biltmore's 18-hole golf course. Apparently, a 50-year restriction on development of the golf course expired in 2006.
Though Torres felt certain the prospective owners would keep the golf course, Mayor Gary Katica said the whole idea was making him nervous. He said development of the course could hamper the town's ability to get water from the ground below, and it could obscure the views from existing homes.
"To me, that's a deal breaker," he said.
Correspondent Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at [email protected]