PLANT CITY — It was one of the biggest surprises to many this year: The iconic Red Rose Inn & Suites had suddenly closed.
The death a month earlier of the owners' eldest daughter, Laurie Madonia, was cited as the primary reason for the closure, which occurred abruptly after Sunday brunch service. However, in the weeks that followed, it was revealed that owners Evelyn and Batista Madonia Sr. were contending with millions in tax liens and court judgments related to the hotel, their main business, East Coast Brokers and Packers, and other properties.
The couple has maintained a low profile since the hotel closed and lately has been nearly impossible to reach, causing rumors to swirl whether the opulent 261-room hotel at the gateway to downtown Plant City at Interstate 4 and State Road 39 is up for sale.
Calls to eldest son Stephen Madonia have not been returned. Other family members have either not returned calls or switched to unlisted phone numbers. Friends say the family won't reveal their plans, only fueling the speculation.
Two days after the shutdown on May 20 it seemed the hotel might reopen when longtime family friend David Page, a retired hotel operator from Indianapolis, disclosed that the couple was reconsidering in order to accommodate guests with reservations.
Later that day, a reservationist said the hotel was closed indefinitely.
The only activity lately at the white and pastel-yellow inn occurs when a maintenance crew shows up each week.
The Madonias, from Erie, Pa., made their fortune in the produce business with a combined 4,000 acres in Florida and Virginia, and quickly established themselves as one of Plant City's prominent families.
They purchased the hotel in 2003 and poured $4 million into renovations to transform the property into a showplace packed with Southern charm.
With its ornate lobby and dining rooms and gilded fixtures, the Red Rose became Plant City's go-to meeting place for banquets, charity events and weddings. It also held weekly dances, garnering a reputation among Hillsborough and Polk counties' ballroom crowd.
Evelyn Madonia gained a reputation herself, frequently appearing in elbow-length gloves and glittery ballroom gowns on TV commercials to promote the hotel.
The Madonias gave lavishly to charity over the years, supporting, among other beneficiaries, the Florida Strawberry Festival's new agricultural center and the new heart and vascular center at Plant City's South Florida Baptist Hospital, although the Madonia name has recently come off the building.
The Madonias' fortunes seemed to take a turn for the worse two years ago, when New York-based German American Capital Corp. purchased the 2009 tax certificate for delinquent taxes on the property and the following year bought the 2010 certificate, according to the Hillsborough County Tax Collector's Office.
German American has paid the 2011 taxes and this past April started the process to foreclose on the property. The total owed now for the 2009, 2010 and 2011 tax years, including interest, is $363,420, records show.
The Clerk of the Courts Office says it has not yet scheduled a tax deed foreclosure sale. For now, the property is still owned by the Madonias.
Rich Shopes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2454.