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Resort, condos to rise at beach

After months of talks, a St. Petersburg developer will submit plans to the city today to demolish the landmark Clearwater Beach Hotel and turn the site into a four-star, 251-room resort.

The $60-million project, now called the Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach, would include a spa and fitness center, an upscale restaurant and a series of pools that lead to the Gulf of Mexico.

The nine-story hotel would replace the 137-room Clearwater Beach Hotel, which has been on the beach for more than 85 years, though in its current form only since 1988.

It would also be part of the first wave of hotel redevelopment in decades if developer Mike Cheezem holds to his timetable, which is expected to break ground next summer and be completed in January 2007.

"We're capturing the essence of the quality of the area in terms of the design of this hotel," said Cheezem, who has led several condominium projects on Clearwater Beach, including the Mandalay Beach Club.

Plans unveiled for the Sandpearl Tuesday also call for a 5,500-square-foot ballroom and 4,500 square feet of smaller meeting rooms that in total could accommodate between 700 and 1,500 guests, according to industry estimates.

The two-story lobby will be lined in limestone, and offer an unfettered view of the gulf, Cheezem said.

Rooms would cost about $200 a night on average, said Cheezem, whose partners on the project are Connecticut developer David Mack and the Hunter Hotel Group, which currently owns the hotel.

"We have a program that accomplishes our goals and reflects the quality of Clearwater Beach," Cheezem said. "A unique boutique hotel will retain a strong sense of individuality to the area."

Cheezem plans to build an $80-million, 150-foot condominium complex next to the resort on Mandalay Avenue.

The 105 condo units at the Sandpearl would range from between $400,000 and $1.5-million and penthouse units could cost even more, Cheezem said. Owners would be able to access the resort amenities, including room and maid service.

Another 12 condominium flats would be built on top of 10,000 square feet of retail space that would front Mandalay Avenue.

The condominiums and the resort would be separated by Baymont Street, which would connect the beach with the Intracoastal Waterway. Together, the project would reshape 5.5 acres and 700 feet of beachline.

"You have a very successful developer who has brought things to the city and has worked through our process and has built a very successful condominium," said City Manager Bill Horne. "This (project) seems to be the kind of replacement we want for a resort that has a lot of history on Clearwater Beach."

City officials have long sought an upscale resort to buoy a soft market and an aging hotel stock. Since 1997, occupancy rates on the beach have dropped 9 percent and in 2003, revenue per room sagged below $65 a night.

There hasn't been any new resort construction in more than 15 years. And demand has dropped by more than 100,000 room nights between 2000 and 2003.

To combat the downturn, the city dedicated millions of dollars in infrastructure improvements along the beach. Major streetscape work along Mandalay Avenue at the north end of the beach has already been completed.

The city created a "bonus pool" of hotel rooms for potential developers to construct bigger projects.

And last month, the city committed $15-million to an overhaul of S Gulfview Boulevard, the main tourist drag on the beach.

"The top priority is to continue to upgrade our tourist product," said Council member Bill Jonson. "We have some really clean, nice, small motels, but we are missing a real competitive category in the higher end."

Along Gulfview, two developers have already proposed new upscale resorts to replace several run-down motels. One, proposed by Tampa developer Brian Taub, would include 250 resort rooms and be affiliated with the Hyatt chain. A second, now proposed by Tampa entrepreneur Kiran Patel, would include 325 resort rooms. Patel has said a national chain would run his hotel as well. Both properties would include a condominium component.

On the north end of the beach, city leaders have expressed enthusiasm over Cheezem's $140-million plan.

The city has already tentatively agreed to change the land use restrictions on the hotel site and expand a beach redevelopment zone to accommodate the resort proposal.

The site plans will now be formally reviewed by the city's planning department, which has worked with the developer on the design for months. Barring any hiccups, the plans would then be vetted in December by the Community Development Board.

The City Council must also finalize its approval before construction can begin.

"The level of quality we've come to expect from Cheezem and Mack is a breath of fresh air on the resort side of things," Council member Frank Hibbard said. "They seem to have the wherewithal and the horsepower to pull it off."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at (727) 445-4160 or asharockmansptimes.com.

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