Some Dunedin officials and residents are disappointed that the historic former Fenway hotel on the Edgewater Drive waterfront has been purchased by a not-for-profit organization, the Taoist Tai Chi Society, rather than by developers who planned to build a boutique hotel on the 6.4-acre site. Some have whispered concerns about the group, its intentions and its unusual-sounding name. Though purchase by a private entity with a commercial purpose would have come with more tax benefits for the city, the new owner at least plans to preserve the 90-year-old landmark rather than tear it down, which preservationists should celebrate.
The Taoist Tai Chi Society is not unknown in Dunedin, the Tampa Bay region or Florida. Its national headquarters is in Tallahassee. It has conducted classes for years in Dunedin. It operates centers in several other Pinellas cities, including St. Petersburg, and hundreds of Pinellas residents go to those centers as well as other locations each week to practice tai chi. The society has a reputation as a quiet, responsible property owner where it has centers.
The society's ownership of the Fenway property unfortunately will not benefit city coffers, since it is a religious organization exempt from paying property taxes. The city and some residents had been rooting instead for the father-daughter development team of James and Christy Bower, even though they planned to tear down the building rather than preserve it. The Bowers said they would build a replica of the Fenway and operate it as a boutique hotel and conference center with condos. Supporters liked that it would continue to be called the Fenway and would be open to the public. City officials had eagerly anticipated the property taxes that would be collected from the $15 million hotel development.
However, PNC Bank, which foreclosed on the property, chose to sell to the Tai Chi Society for $2.8 million. The organization plans to restore the structure and operate it as its second international conference center — the other one is in Ontario. According to a society official, practitioners of tai chi will come from all over the world for workshops, conferences and religious festivals.
Despite the popularity of tai chi as a form of exercise practiced worldwide, the group's origins and practices are not well known, which may be contributing to residents' concerns about the purchase. Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that aims to improve health through fluid, slow-moving exercises and meditation. The Taoist Tai Chi Society was founded by a Taoist monk, the late Master Moy Lin-Shin, who as a young man used tai chi to improve his poor health. He eventually developed the 108-move set of tai chi exercises that is taught today. The certified instructors who teach tai chi are unpaid volunteers, as are many of those who run the organization.
Though the city may have wished for something different, scoring an international conference center for an organization that operates in 26 countries is not bad news. Visitors to the conference center will bring business to Dunedin shops, restaurants and hotels, and some of those visitors may choose to live in Dunedin after being exposed to the city's considerable charms.
The city government should set aside its disappointment, because it has an important role now: to welcome the new property owner, assist as the society begins formulating its plans, and ensure the restoration of Dunedin's most important historic landmark is properly done.