BELLEAIR — Five days after the owners of the Belleview Biltmore filed a request to raze most of the 115-year-old hotel, a national nonprofit is urging town leaders to deny that request.
"I understand the frustration when it takes longer than anticipated to find a preservation solution for a building, but the answer is not demolishing the building for the promise of something 'better' that in many cases is never built," wrote John Hildreth, a vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In the Jan. 11 letter to town leaders, Hildreth emphasized that, in the long term, preserving historic structures pays off both economically and culturally. He said the nonprofit has been committed to saving the Biltmore since before 2005, when it was declared one of the organization's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. And he pledged to support the town now.
As town leaders prepare for a Biltmore-related meeting Tuesday night, Mayor Gary Katica, who previously doubted there would any strong objections to demolishing the hotel, said he has received 25 to 30 fiery emails and passionate pleas to save the landmark.
One urged commissioners to resign, he said. Another claimed the mayor was "ripping out the heart of Belleair."
"I get these emails from people like some decision has been made," Katica said. "Even if everything was successful, it would take pretty close to a year."
Local preservationists say they're gearing up for battle. They're booking TV interviews, passing out fliers and coming up with a game plan to combat rhetoric from the owners.
They say they have their work cut out for them because, for months, Matthew Cummings, a representative for the owners, has insisted that saving the Biltmore is virtually impossible.
"We want to get the other side of the story out and we're trying to find the best way to do that," said Rae Claire Johnson, who heads Friends of the Belleview Biltmore, one of the groups aimed at saving the hotel.
Most city leaders want to do the right thing and will abide by town regulations that call for preserving the Biltmore, she said.
In 2005, when the hotel was at risk of demolition, the town adopted a historic preservation ordinance, which protects the Biltmore and puts the burden on the owners to prove they have little choice but to raze it.
Diane Hein, the head of another preservation group, said they're trying to get residents to come out to Tuesday's city meeting, where the Biltmore will be discussed.
"We're trying to show the commissioners that people still want the hotel saved and it's very important that the historic preservation ordinance be upheld," said Hein of Save the Biltmore Preservationists Inc.
People see pictures of the hotel's rusted railings, chipped paint and tattered roof and lose hope, she said.
"We need to get the message across that all of these things can be repaired," Hein said.
But not everyone is a fan of the Biltmore. A number of residents, especially those who live in the condominiums near the Biltmore, say they're tired of looking at the dilapidated hotel day after day. Others are concerned because the town is losing about $200,000 in annual revenues since the hotel closed in June 2009.
The owners, a group of Miami investors, are considering building townhomes on the 22-acre property. Cummings previously said plans could include as many as 180 or more homes. But earlier this week he said he's not sure how many homes they would need to build or whether their plans will include condominiums.
Besides a request to raze the hotel, the owners have submitted an application to remove the hotel's historic designation within the town and an application for a special certificate — required when seeking to demolish a historic structure.
On Tuesday, no vote will be taken on the Biltmore. Town leaders will be prepped on the process for considering the owners' application and on town regulations pertaining to the Biltmore property.
"We're going to be talking about the roles of the different boards and the commission itself," said Town Manager Micah Maxwell. "And we'll try to answer whatever questions they might have concerning demolition or site plan approval."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155. Go to tampabay.com/letters to write a letter to the editor.