BELLEAIR — It's official. There is blight in the midst of the million-dollar homes in Belleair.
At a special meeting last week, the Belleair Town Commission voted unanimously to declare the 20.32-acre property that's home to the historic Belleview Biltmore hotel a blighted area. With that vote, Belleair can now seek authority from the Pinellas County Commission to create a Community Redevelopment Area, or CRA, to benefit restoration of the deteriorating hotel.
Any additional property taxes collected when property values rise within a CRA are used to finance improvements inside the CRA only. Local governments must agree to give up the additional revenue they could collect from that rise in property value.
An area must be declared blighted before a CRA can be created. Now that the town has taken that step, officials hope the County Commission will consent at its June meeting. If the county gives the go-ahead, the Belleair Town Commission will then take another vote to create the CRA.
"This is one more step in a very long journey that's going to be involved with the town, residents and the commission," said Belleair Commissioner Stephen Fowler. "It's a small step in a very long journey that hopefully will be successful when we get there."
Commissioner Michael Wilkinson agreed.
"We are charged with doing all we can to save and restore the Biltmore," Wilkinson said. "This is a first step in a very long process."
Last week's vote was the second in as many months that the Town Commission has taken to encourage restoration of the 115-year-old hotel.
In April the commission agreed to extend a 2008 development order given to a previous hotel owner. That approval was considered pivotal by proposed new owners of the hotel; without it, they would have been forced to create a new development order and get it approved.
Belleview Biltmore Partners LLC has until October to close on the purchase of the hotel property. The group intends to spend about $225 million to restore the hotel to its former grandeur. They hope to turn it into a corporate travel destination.
Charles Kropke of Coral Gables, a member of Belleview Biltmore Partners, said last week that a major international bank, a major hotelier and a powerful economic group have all agreed to help restore the landmark hotel, which has 460 rooms. Kropke would not name the bank or the hotelier. But he said the final piece of the plan is the creation of the CRA.
"We are asking only for permission for a way that this project pays for itself," Kropke told the commission. "This particular formula is set up as a win-win situation. This is the last grand Victorian (hotel) in the state of Florida. We are producing a methodology to do it."
The hotel was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
Some residents are still skeptical about a public-private partnership. Some even think the hotel should be razed and single-family homes or townhomes should be built on the property instead.
"I am questioning why has the idea of it becoming a residential community been completely discounted?" asked Randy Ware, who was one of about 40 people attending last week's meeting. "…I don't understand why we are discounting turning the property into homes. … I just redeveloped a property and I don't ask anybody for a penny."
Saul Schechter, president of Seaside at Belleair II Condominium Association, said he is concerned about the property being declared blighted. Seaside II is near the hotel.
"Taxpayers of Belleair will be subsidizing this for years to come," Schechter said. "What happens if this project goes forward and it fails? What obligations does the town have?"
Town Manager Micah Maxwell said he is still pulling together economic data and that the town will do everything it can to protect itself. He said more information will available before the commission takes the final vote on creating a CRA. That pleased some commissioners who still want more financial data about the project.
"I don't want the town to take on additional liability," said Commissioner Kevin Piccarreto. "That's not a good idea right now. I want to protect ourselves from being stuck with a project that doesn't move forward."
Resident Laurie Adams was a member of the ad hoc committee that was formed to help save the hotel. She said last week that the town's comprehensive plan specifically lists as a goal that the commission work to help to ensure that the "hotel owners are successful." Adams encouraged the commission to create the CRA.