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Biltmore owner needs to regain town's trust

"It's a shack waiting for something bad to happen, and somebody needs to do something." Emanuel Mersis

The "shack" in Emanuel Mersis' comment is the Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa in Belleair, and Mersis can be forgiven for referring to the storied historic hotel next door to his home as a "shack," because these days, the 113-year-old Belleview Biltmore just doesn't look the part of revered local landmark. The town of Belleair should pursue all avenues to ensure that the vacant building, which appears to be in an alarming state of deterioration, is safeguarded.

That may mean taking the hotel's owner to court, but hopefully an arrangement can be made to avoid the cost of litigation. Belleair may have no other option, however, since city fines that have now mounted to more than $65,000 seem insufficient to move the hotel's owner, Latitude Management Real Estate Investors, formerly known as Legg Mason Real Estate Investors, to make the property presentable.

Mersis took pictures of the Belleview Biltmore, which was closed in June 2009 in preparation for Latitude Management's promised restoration of the structure, and showed them to Belleair officials. The photographs focus on the tattered roof of the enormous wood structure. Shingles are missing. Shreds of tarps used to cover the damaged roof after the 2004 hurricanes cling here and there, clearly no longer performing any protective function. Mersis is worried about debris flying off the hotel in a storm and damaging surrounding properties.

Mayor Gary Katica showed the pictures to the Town Commission recently and said the city should implement a provision of Belleair's historic preservation ordinance that gives the city manager authority to force repairs if the building is being "demolished by neglect." Katica believes that's what is happening, and his opinion was shared by other town officials.

Latitude Management denies that it is standing by while the hotel deteriorates. Joseph Penner, the owner's consultant for the project, says leaks have been patched and the outside "looks worse than it is," yet the company concedes that the roof needs $4.5 million worth of repairs. He said the company still plans to restore the hotel, but reminds the public that the project was delayed repeatedly by legal challenges and now is caught up in an economic downturn that has dried up funding for development projects.

Penner may find local residents less than sympathetic to that line of argument. The goal of residents and town officials is to see the hotel preserved and given a useful second life. Legg Mason, now Latitude Management, presented itself as the party with the skill and deep pockets to pull off the restoration. Residents who supported Legg Mason's purchase of the property in 2007 now wonder if they were, in the words of one resident, "snookered."

The community's trust in the hotel's owner is at risk. If Latitude Management wants to restore the community's faith and avoid legal action by the city, there are several steps it should take.

First, it should immediately allow local government inspectors to examine the hotel to determine whether it is being properly protected from the elements and ensure that it is not a hazard to nearby properties. The company should repair anything the inspectors find necessary and clean up or cover the roof area, which is an eyesore. And the company should drop its appeal of the city fines.

Then, company officials should come to Belleair and level with the public about the status of the planned $100 million restoration project. After all, the company wanted this job. The public has every right to expect them to do it and to be a responsible property owner until the project is done.

Biltmore owner needs to regain town's trust 08/14/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 14, 2010 12:20pm]
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