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Three candidates seek two seats on Belleair's Town Commission

BELLEAIR — All of the candidates for Belleair's Town Commission have the fate of the Belleview Biltmore on their minds.

The two incumbents, Deputy Mayor Stephen Fowler and Commissioner Michael Wilkinson, say they'd like to see as much of the 115-year-old hotel restored as possible.

The other, newcomer Jim White, says he hasn't yet made up his mind.

In a March 13 election, the two candidates with the most votes will earn seats on the commission.

Both Fowler and Wilkinson are clear about their stance on the Biltmore.

"It's the heart of the town. It's the highest and best use of that property," said Fowler, who has served on the commission since 1997. "It could generate ad valorem tax revenue that no other use could generate."

Wilkinson, who has served on the commission since July 2010, said the town's comprehensive plan and its historic preservation ordinance obligate commissioners to do what they can to save the Biltmore.

"It's definitely a hot issue for Belleair," Wilkinson said. "It's a large part of our history."

As for White, he says he needs more information before deciding what should happen to the Biltmore. But he questions whether the owners' current plan to raze most of the hotel to build townhomes is viable.

Newcomer runs

White's recent campaign treasurer report seems to indicate support for a group that wants to save the hotel. His expenditures include a $25 check to Rae Claire Johnson for her nonprofit Friends of the Belleview Biltmore. But White says he hasn't come to a conclusion about the Biltmore at all.

"I honestly don't know," White said.

He said in late January he was asked to sponsor a table at a book signing, which also happened to be a fundraiser for Johnson's group.

White said he won't be able to come to a conclusion about the Biltmore until he sees concrete figures for various options on the site.

"Because of the failures in the past, we really have to see the numbers," he said.

White, who serves as president of the Belleview Biltmore Homes Association, said running for political office was the furthest thing from his mind up until a few months ago.

That's when town leaders rescinded a resolution approved in 1992. It required all boat slips in the Seaside Marina be sold to residents who live in the residential planned development district where White lives. Over the years, most of the slips had been sold to people who don't live in the district.

The commission's decision a few months ago put the matter back in residents' hands. White felt it was the town's responsibility to enforce the resolution that it originally put in place.

He was also disappointed with town leaders' failure to address crumbling roads and other infrastructure problems in a timely fashion.

Budget woes

Fowler said the town's efforts to fix problems in recent years have been handicapped by its limited budget.

"We were doing as much as we could with the funds available," he said.

About a year ago, the town created an infrastructure board to review items like road projects and the town's water system. And the town came up with a long-range plan to deal with those issues, Fowler said.

"The town is playing catchup and we are going in the right direction right now," Wilkinson said. "It's now where it should be, in the center of the radar."

Fowler, 67, is an architect and president of Fowler Associates Architects in Clearwater. He served on several town boards before his election. A Belleair resident since 1976, Fowler serves on the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's board of directors. He's a member of the Rotary Club of Clearwater and a lifetime member of the Florida Sheriffs Association.

Wilkinson, 47, is an independent insurance consultant for Integrated Wealth Management LLC. He also served on several town boards before he was appointed to fill another commissioner's seat. Wilkinson is a flag football coach, and, for several years, he has served as Santa in the town's annual Christmas gift delivery. He has lived in Belleair since 1994.

White, 68, an Army veteran, works as a systems engineer for defense and intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. An avid runner and pilot, he moved to Belleair about seven years ago.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4155.

>>If you go

Candidate forum

Belleair will host a forum at 7 p.m. Feb. 29 at Town Hall, 901 Ponce de Leon Blvd.

Three candidates seek two seats on Belleair's Town Commission 02/18/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 2:52pm]
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