BELLEAIR — A wave of supporters swept into Town Hall Tuesday, urging town leaders to protect the "White Queen of the Gulf." The tide came days after the owner of the Belleview Biltmore filed an application to demolish most of the historic hotel.
About 175 people packed the meeting room, filling the chairs, lining the back wall and spilling into the lobby. Most of the approximately 30 people who spoke at the town meeting said the Belleview Biltmore is a historic treasure, worthy of preservation.
"It's the core of Belleair," said Tom Nocera of Clearwater. "It's one of the most important buildings in all of Pinellas County."
The owner, which has pitched plans for townhomes on the property, has claimed that the 115-year-old hotel can't be restored. The audience cheered when Belleair resident Al Vacca pooh-poohed that claim, saying, "If the coliseum in Rome stood for 2,000 years, I think this hotel could stand for another 100."
The Biltmore may have even more historical significance, Vacca said, because "as I understand it, President Obama slept there," referring to Obama's 2008 stay at the Biltmore, where he prepared for the presidential debates.
Resident Laurie Adams also cautioned leaders about having their names forever linked to the destruction of the Biltmore.
"If a demolition permit is issued," she said, "your name will go down in history."
But a couple of local residents said it was time to say goodbye to the Biltmore. Lil Cromer said she lives across the road from the hotel, which has been closed since June 2009, and sees its decay and deterioration every day.
"I venture to guess that if preservationists lived with a crumbling, unsightly building in their front yards, they'd be singing a different tune here tonight," Cromer said. "People get old and they die. Buildings get old and they also die. I suggest it's time to plan for the funeral."
Many residents also accused the owner of letting the hotel deteriorate. And they asked town leaders to be firmer with the owners, who owe more than $200,000 in unpaid code enforcement fines for the hotel's damaged roof.
Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto said he's heard differing opinions about the hotel around town. A couple of commissioners, Deputy Mayor Stephen Fowler and Commissioner Tom Shelly, said Tuesday's response seemed to reflect what they've heard from the community.
However, the owner's representative, Matthew Cummings, said Wednesday that the outpouring of support Tuesday was spurred by the preservationists' "massive" e-mail and media campaign.
Both Piccarreto and Shelly said Wednesday they were surprised that Cummings didn't make a statement at the meeting.
Cummings has said repeatedly that the cost to restore the hotel is astronomical, and even if the hotel could be restored, it would never be viable. And because Cummings tells people that, Shelly said, it appears he's not really trying to sell the property.
"I really do believe if they were to market the hotel strongly worldwide, they could probably find a buyer," said Shelly, a licensed real estate broker for Sunshine Commercial Brokerage.
Town officials said the owner's application to demolish most of the hotel is incomplete. The town's planner is conducting a detailed review of the request to identify all of the missing elements, said Town Manager Micah Maxwell.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4155. Go to tampabay.com/letters to write a letter to the editor.