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Historic Fenway Hotel proposal ties past to future in Dunedin

“You can build hotels anywhere, any time,” Christy Bower says about plans she and her father have for the hotel. “But the Fenway has so much history and the town has so much character that the two together make it such a dynamic project.”

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2011)

“You can build hotels anywhere, any time,” Christy Bower says about plans she and her father have for the hotel. “But the Fenway has so much history and the town has so much character that the two together make it such a dynamic project.”

DUNEDIN — The city says bank officials are slated to approve a developer's bid to purchase the Fenway Hotel "any day now."

James and Christy Bower, a father and daughter real estate development team out of Pennsylvania, plan to tear down the deteriorating structure at 453 Edgewater Drive and build an 88-room independent boutique hotel in the exact same image as the original building.

The concrete and steel-reinforced facility is also envisioned to feature a courtyard, 27 to 33 waterside condos, a 1920s interior and artifacts, as well as 11,000 to 19,000 square feet of conference space. The hotel would be similar in size to what's already there and retain some form of the Fenway name.

In anticipation of PNC Bank approving sale of the foreclosed property as early as this week, city commissioners on Thursday gave the staff the unanimous okay to start drafting a development agreement. That document would authorize the city to expedite its permitting process so the hotel could open by Jan. 1, 2015 — peak tourism season.

Dunedin planning director Greg Rice said he and economic development director Bob Ironsmith are "pumped" to move forward with the project, which will return the 6.4-acre waterfront property to tax-generating status and will also create jobs.

Razing the original structure and rebuilding it to meet current hurricane, velocity and building code standards, they said, will also ensure safety of guests and nearby residents, who had complained over the years about squatters and children exploring its dilapidated depths.

"We're thrilled we actually get to keep the history but we're getting a modern, safe building," Rice said.

Added Ironsmith: "Downtown isn't franchise-oriented and this would be fitting right into that mold."

The project would be only the latest for James Bower, who says he has developed about 10 hotels in the last 15 to 20 years, mainly in the Pennsylvania area.

Looking for an excuse to spend more time in Florida, he and Christy said they were drawn to Dunedin's charm as well as the Fenway's storied past, which includes briefly housing Pinellas County's first radio station, then, according to the Dunedin Historical Society, serving for several decades as a playground for rich and famous guests such as baseball great Babe Ruth, representatives of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration and several silent film actors.

It became the campus of Trinity Bible College in 1961, then Schiller International University in 1991. George Rahdert, a St. Petersburg attorney who represents the Tampa Bay Times, purchased the hotel in 2006, planning to restore and expand it into a 132-room, high-end resort and spa, but the project was derailed, in part because of the poor economy and neighbors who protested an expansion.

The real estate website Loopnet.com lists the property's value at $3.9 million.

"To me, Dunedin is such a cool town," Christy Bower said. "You can build hotels anywhere, any time. But the Fenway has so much history and the town has so much character that the two together make it such a dynamic project."

Added James Bower: "Over the last 15 to 20 years, (Dunedin has) done a tremendous job and I'd like to be part of something that's as progressive and forward-looking as what they're doing. . . . I think the history and everything behind that is well worthwhile and we're going to do everything we can to make it look similar to what the original Fenway was."

If the bank approves, they hope to close by January and start construction by February. Christy would relocate here to help oversee daily operations along with an existing management company, they said.

A meeting with neighbors is set for 6:30 p.m. Dec. 10 at the Hale Activity Center. The city expects to seek Local Planning Agency support Dec. 11 and City Commission votes on Dec. 19 and Jan. 9.

Rahdert, who had poured at least "seven figures" into the venture, said a sale would be "closing a chapter."

"The good news," said Rice, the city planning director, "is the scale of this is quite a bit smaller than what Mr. Rahdert had in mind, so we're hoping the neighborhood will be okay with it."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or ksummers@tampabay.com. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

Historic Fenway Hotel proposal ties past to future in Dunedin 11/22/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 22, 2013 6:24pm]
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