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Landmark hotel to be demolished

City officials have decided to demolish the historic but dilapidated 82-year-old Hotel San Carlos, once the Florida Panhandle's premier address.

The City Council last week unanimously voted to pay the hotel's owner $1.5-million and forgive back taxes in exchange for removing the building and donating the one-acre site to the city for a park.

The gray-walled, 500-room San Carlos is named for one of Pensacola's Spanish forts and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In better times, it hosted such notables as boxing champion Jack Dempsey, movie star John Wayne and presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson, Alf Landon and Wendell Wilkie. Country music star Hank Williams performed on a radio program once broadcast from the San Carlos.

But the seven-story concrete structure has been vacant and boarded up for the past 10 years, serving as a gathering spot for the homeless and a hulking blight on efforts to renew Pensacola's downtown.

Various schemes to renovate the building have been offered, including proposals for a library, luxury apartments, elderly housing and even a country music museum.

City officials once tried to get a federal grant to restore the building, but Pensacola's economy was too good to qualify. They agreed to sell tax-free bonds to finance renovation, but financial conditions were too poor and the deal never went through.

While sitting vacant, the hotel has gone through a series of ownership changes and is now in the hands of Fort Lauderdale developer Jim Beeson Jr. He called the demolition vote "the first positive thing I've seen since I bought the hotel."

The building's size and the recession made renovation impossible without a large public subsidy, Beeson said.

Plans call for a two-month period of asbestos removal, followed within a month by demolition and a two-month cleanup.

Explosives will be used to demolish the building except for the northern wall next to St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church. It will be taken down manually. Beeson said precautions will be taken to protect the church's stained-glass windows.

Some of the hotel's contents will be removed for preservation in museums, Beeson said.

Movie rights to the demolition will belong to the wrecking company contracted for the job, but Beeson said the money will be a relatively small amount.

Council members were disappointed. They had hoped a Hollywood producer would finance demolition.