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Belleview Biltmore to stay put

A proposal to demolish the landmark Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa for condominiums has died because developers could not win public support for the project, principals in the deal said Monday.

A hotel representative said the 19th-century resort will continue to operate. A developer said he hopes to rework and resubmit his plans for the site, which were not publicized but still angered large portions of the small waterside community.

Opened in 1897 and built by railroad tycoon Henry Plant, the Belleview is billed as the largest occupied wooden structure in the world and is one of Florida's few remaining historic hotels.

Traditionalists say it is one of the last remaining vestiges of an earlier Pinellas County.

Now it has won a reprieve, after negotiations recently broke down. One would-be developer said building the necessary public support was challenging because the hotel's owner in Pennsylvania insisted on secrecy.

Any future development "would have to be a part of a more public discussion," said Frank Maggio, president of First Dartmouth Homes and a partner in Belleair Redevelopment Group, the company that pushed the transformation. "For anybody who wants to be involved with a creative solution that makes the most people happy, it's going to require the public's help."

Richard Wilhelm, president of Belleview's management company, Trust Hotels, said the resort is readying for a strong 2005. Bookings are up 35 percent over last year, and the Belleview has completed nearly $10-million in capital improvements since 2003, he said.

"The ownership group is here to continue to operate a viable, first-class resort," Wilhelm said. "There are countless people in the past years who have come in and have had an interest in the property. But the resort has never been officially for sale. And we aren't pushing to sell it."

The current owners, a real estate investment group led by Scott Urdang, did not return telephone messages. Traditionally, they have said they do not discuss specific investments.

Maggio said the group's strict confidentiality requirements made public discussion almost impossible.

Maggio's First Dartmouth Homes and two other development companies _ Sun Vista Ventures of St. Petersburg and DeBartolo Development of Tampa _ formed Belleair Redevelopment Group to transform the 22-acre resort, a 136-acre golf course south of the resort, and a 1-acre Sand Key beach club.

That group announced it had a contract to purchase all three resort properties in November and intended to raze the resort, which turns 108 years old later this week, for condominiums.

But developers never submitted plans to the town, fueling speculation _ including a rumor that the resort would be demolished this month.

Maggio said Monday he met with some members of the adjacent, but not affiliated, Belleair Country Club last month and discussed a potential land swap that would have saved the original shell of the historic hotel.

Under that proposal, the original hotel would have been relocated west to the waterfront in exchange for some country club land, Maggio said.

"We were not able to flesh it out because of the contract obligations," Maggio said.

Country club officials said they met with developers but would not discuss details of the conversation. General manager Ed Shaughnessy did not return numerous calls seeking comment. Earlier he said the club would not deal away any portion of its two existing golf courses.

Maggio said developers remain interested in a deal. Ron Carpenter, a consultant and broker on the project, said another proposal likely will be forthcoming.

"The Biltmore properties are all trophies in their own regard with a lot of development potential," said Carpenter, with Tampa's Vinchenza Group. "Just because this group didn't bring their dream to reality this time, does not mean that it won't happen.

"The highest and best use of this property is not being utilized today," Carpenter said.

Some residents said they were excited the resort would be staying put, while some elected officials predicted more developers would come knocking.

Tom Shelly, president of the Belleair Civic Association, said the death of the redevelopment proposal is a victory for the town's residents.

Belleair Mayor George E. Mariani Jr. said it was frustrating not having answers. "We didn't know anything more than they did," Mariani said. "We couldn't tell rumor from truth, either."

Pinellas County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan said it would have been difficult to support the redevelopment effort as it was generally proposed. New to the commission, Duncan is head of a commercial real estate firm.

In 1995, his wedding reception was in the Belleview's Tiffany Ballroom.

"I have some sentimental alliance and allegiance to that place," Duncan said. "But I also think there's an opportunity there. The reality is that we're going to see another offer on the table to buy it."

Duncan believes a compromise can be struck.

"The Belleview Biltmore has historical significance and local support. You can use that as a marketing tool and blend that in to the overall project," Duncan said. "So long as it is truly maintained, it could be a positive opposed to a negative."

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

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