NEW PORT RICHEY — Roxie Spell and her 17-year-old daughter, Katie, spent the morning on bee-cleaning duty.
The past few years have been hard on the vacant Hacienda Hotel. Vandals have broken windows and punched holes in the walls. Weeds and vines have overtaken the outside. And the main balcony overlooking the hotel's cherished arch was piled high with dead bees.
About 350 volunteers gathered Saturday morning at the landmark hotel for a community cleanup, and even though the bees were "nasty," Roxie Spell and her daughter were all smiles.
"We definitely wanted to be a part of this," Spell said. "The hotel is so beautiful."
The 1920s hotel, which remains a blank slate for some kind of downtown redevelopment effort, still needs repairs. But after volunteers ripped out the carpet and cleaned up debris, the front lobby had an open, airy feel. The balcony was clear and the hotel boasted a spacious, landscaped courtyard that was a perfect mix of shady and sun-drenched.
People couldn't help but imagine wedding receptions or other events there.
"We couldn't have asked for a better day," said City Council member Bill Phillips, who pitched the idea for the cleanup. "This is over and above what I expected when we starting talking about this."
Next up is an exterior paint job, a more targeted assessment of the hotel's remaining needs — and security cameras to discourage vandals from undoing the volunteers' work.
In the coming days, the New Port Richey Police Department will mount cameras on the building to provide 24-hour surveillance. The recorded footage could be used to prosecute vandalism or any other criminal activity there.
The department will spend more than $1,300 from its forfeiture fund for the cameras to show the community's hard work will be protected, Police Chief James Steffens said.
"We just wanted to do our part to let the community know that any continued vandalism or criminal activity at the Hacienda is not going to be tolerated," Steffens said.
For years, he said, vandals have broken windows and damaged the building, creating a negative image that invites more crime.
"It's mostly just youthful stupidity," Steffens said. "But they need to know what they are doing is hurting a gem in the city."
The City Council unanimously approved funding the cameras last week, a few days before the community cleanup. Then on Saturday, volunteers flooded into the building to rip out carpet, scrub down kitchens and former hotel rooms, scrape paint off railings and prime the exterior for a paint job.
"I think it's the most exciting thing I have seen in years," City Council member Bob Langford said, observing the volunteers. "It's just an exciting thing to see all these people come together."
The city purchased the Hacienda Hotel for $2.21 million back in 2004, hoping to make it a cornerstone of the downtown redevelopment effort.
But previous plans to turn the building into a lecture hall or a bed-and-breakfast fell apart, and the city recently cut ties with a developer it had been working with for years.
Community Development Partners had proposed expanding the Hacienda into a 93-room boutique hotel with restaurant and retail spaces, plus a conference area and spa. But plans languished amid a down economy and city leaders feared the hotel may crumble without action.
After taking a recent tour of the building, Phillips realized the building had endured years of neglect better than expected. He suggested the community cleanup to help move the building into its next phase — whatever that may be.