BELLEAIR — A no-nonsense architect with a passion for preserving historic properties, a Miami developer with Brooklyn roots, and a tourism professional with Hollywood style.
The South Florida trio came to town Tuesday and shared their vision for making the Belleview Biltmore a world-class destination. And, a few hours later, the town helped the group jump one of the first hurdles necessary to make their $225 million restoration plan a reality.
Many in town were familiar with Coral Gables architect Richard Heisenbottle's plan to restore the hotel and turn it into a luxury resort. He had worked for a previous owner that also planned to preserve the 115-year-old hotel.
But few around town had met his partners in the new venture — tourism professional Charles Kropke and real estate developer Hector Torres.
Tuesday night, the trio visited Town Hall to ask Belleair leaders to support their plans. They also shared their ideas with a citizens group of about a dozen people who meet regularly to discuss the landmark.
Kropke told the small group that the historic Belleview Biltmore could serve as a corporate incentive travel destination, where national and international companies could meet to reward employees or discuss strategic goals. He said the renovated Biltmore will have the prestige and size — more than 460 rooms — to capitalize on that market.
"This industry alone lifted Miami out of the recession before the rest of the state," said Kropke, 48, who co-owns Coral Gables-based Dragonfly Expeditions, a company that runs cultural, ecological and historical tours in South Florida and the Caribbean.
Torres described himself as a real estate developer who worked his way up from the bottom, successfully changing the Miami skyline. One of his landmark projects is the 67-story Marquis Residences & Hotel Tempo.
He said the Biltmore served aristocrats in the past and will serve them in the future.
"We're talking about an imminent purchase that is very close to happening, that will bring a world-class luxury product and build a community and give it life for many generations to come," said Torres, 52.
It's evident that the community supports the renovation, he said, and that is vital for the project's success.
"We need everyone's help in some way or another as we move forward because it's a gigantic optimistic project, to take the Queen of the Gulf and put a crown on her head," he said.
The three were treated like celebrities at the Belleair Town Commission meeting, where they briefly introduced themselves and shared their vision for the hotel.
About 120 people filled town hall, and more than a dozen local residents encouraged town leaders to support the group's request for an extension for a 2008 plan to restore the Biltmore.
Ozona resident Terry Fortner pointed out that the resort was not just for the elite, but for working people like herself and her grandmother, who worked at the Biltmore as a young woman and celebrated her 92nd birthday there.
"This hotel is our legacy, and it is like a treasured ancestor that we would never turn our back on," Fortner said.
Others urged town leaders to support the new team.
"Let's stick with it, please, so we don't hesitate and lose these people that are behind us," said Belleair resident Laurie Adams, her comments punctuated by vigorous applause. "I don't want this deal to fall between the cracks."
And one longtime Belleair resident succinctly expressed her excitement.
Gesturing to the commission, the public and the owners, Sally Meadows said, "I just want to say to y'all, y'all and y'all: Hurrah!"
Minutes later, commissioners unanimously voted to extend the 2008 development order, one of the first major requirements to move the project forward.
Virtually everyone in the room gave town leaders a standing ovation.
Prospects for the restoration of the hotel had been dim for months. A group of Miami investors, including Raphael Ades and his brother, bought the hotel, its golf club and Cabana Club on Sand Key for about $8 million in December 2010.
Since fall, a representative for the group had been pitching plans to demolish most of the hotel to make way for townhomes. In January, the team filed a request to demolish the hotel — a request which the town deemed to be "incomplete."
Then, this month, Heisenbottle announced that his team, Belleview Biltmore Partners LLC, had executed a contract to buy the hotel. They have six months to close on the deal.
The reaction from the public was a lot more intense than it was a few years ago, when he worked for Legg Mason Real Estate Investors, which also planned to restore the Biltmore.
On Tuesday, between the booming cheers from residents and the barrage of media snapping his photo, Heisenbottle said he felt a bit like a rock star.
"We left with a great deal of enthusiasm ourselves, and it only spurs us to work as hard as we can work and as fast as we can," Heisenbottle, 61.
Kropke said he feels at home in Belleair.
"We couldn't have gotten a better response," he said. "I think people in the town understand how much the hotel means to the past and the future. And it's our intention to bring it alive so can become the center of community life once again."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155. Go to tampabay.com/letters to write a letter to the editor.