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Spa to get boost from resort firm

For more than 450 years, Safety Harbor's mineral springs have been touted for their magical, mystical, youth-rejuvenating powers.

Now the owner of the Safety Harbor Spa Resort _ home of the legendary springs _ hopes a Florida resort company will cure whatever ails the aging spa.

Fort Myers-based South Seas Resorts Co. has agreed to put $1-million and its resort expertise into the 50-year-old Safety Harbor business, the country's oldest spa.

South Seas has entered the agreement with an option to buy the spa within five years, Safety Harbor Spa Resort owner Roger Kumar said Friday.

South Seas owns nine resort properties in Florida, including South Seas Plantation on Captiva Island and the Sundial Beach Resort in Sanibel. If it chooses to buy the Safety Harbor property, it will be the company's first spa and only Tampa Bay location.

According to legend, the spa's mineral springs first gained exposure in 1539, when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto named them "Espiritu Santo Springs," meaning "Springs of the Holy Spirit." The springs were believed to cure stomach, kidney and liver ailments, as well as supply pure drinking water and beauty enhancers.

Safety Harbor became known as the "health-giving city," and the spa _ built in 1926 along Old Tampa Bay _ was a vacation spot for the rich and famous.

Since 1991, when Kumar bought the spa for $2.9-million, he has spent more than $12-million on renovations. He said he expects South Seas will spend most of its $1-million investment on new furniture for the resort's 172 rooms.

The spa resort and South Seas have been discussing the purchase since the beginning of the year. But Kumar's personal attachment to the spa is one reason the negotiations took so long to complete, said Dennis O'Flannery, general manager of the Safety Harbor Spa Resort.

"He's put a lot of thought and effort into the place and it's been more than a hobby _ it's been a lifestyle," O'Flannery said. "Whenever another company comes in to take something like that over, it's much different than an asset."

The Safety Harbor spa hired O'Flannery, formerly of Hyatt Regency Tampa, in May. O'Flannery, who began marketing the spa as a peaceful hotel for business travelers and not just a vacation spot, will remain general manager.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.