NEW PORT RICHEY — Stories have swirled for years about other-worldly spirits that are said to haunt some of the oldest buildings in downtown New Port Richey.
"Rumor has it" is how they often start.
There's the one about the deceased patron who squats in a favored seat — BB-1 — in the balcony of the Richey Suncoast Theatre on Grand Boulevard. The theater once was named for Thomas Meighan, a silent screen star in the 1920s who had a vision to turn New Port Richey into the "Hollywood of the East."
A floating apparition that haunts the Hacienda Hotel is thought to be a girl named Matilda. She reportedly hung herself in one of the upper rooms of the boutique hotel that is undergoing an extensive renovation and is expected to reopen in the spring of 2020.
There have been purported sightings of a tall gentleman ghost donned in a black trench coat and a wide-brimmed hat in one of the restaurants at the old Chasco Inn on Main Street. It's thought to be the oldest commercial building in downtown.
"Sometimes the man would be standing at the back of the restaurant or walk to the exit sign," said Beth Fregger, a former Main Street director who purchased the building in 2004 with her husband and refurbished it. "Sometimes he had a cigarette."
Spooky can be fun. It also sells.
Paranormal tourism is a cottage industry in many historic cities — Savannah, Ga., Salem, Mass., and St. Augustine, Fla.
And maybe New Port Richey.
Fifty tickets at $10 each were snatched up quickly for two ghost tours held on June 14 as part of the centennial celebration of the Port Richey Land Office that now houses Pontlitz Asset Advisors.
"It started with the idea to put a plaque on the building because it's 100 years old," Derek Pontlitz said, adding that $250 of the ticket sales was donated to the Friends of the Hacienda & Historic New Port Richey. "We decided to turn it into an event and thought about how we could involve other locations."
Evie Parks, an executive assistant at Pontlitz, worked with members of the West Pasco Historical Society to compile a pamphlet for a self-guided historical tour. Pontlitz brought on Rock the Boat Productions to arrange and promote the ghost tour. They focused on seven buildings, including the land office, the Richey Suncoast Theatre and the Hacienda.
"We thought is was a great way to celebrate our history and get people in downtown," said Kacey Atkinson of Rock the Boat. "It serves a charitable interest and historical preservation."
Nicole Ferro and Chris Gostkowski of Paranormal Kicks Cancer conducted preliminary investigations and led the ghost tours. Both say they have long been sensitive to the paranormal and also share an altruistic goal. A portion of their profits helps grant wishes through the American Childhood Cancer Organization and Base Camp Children's Cancer Foundation in Orlando.
Ferro moved from Fort Lauderdale to New Port Richey four years ago and works as a nail technician. Gostkowski unloads trucks for Publix. In their spare time, they investigate, trekking to abandoned hospitals, mansions and other haunted buildings, mostly in eastern parts of the country.
They spent two days investigating in New Port Richey, using equipment similar to what might be seen on the television show Ghost Hunters — digital recorders, cameras and something called a Spirit Box.
"Ideally, we would like to be there for 11 to 12 hours," Ferro said.
Even so, she said, "within 38 seconds of turning equipment on in Ordinance One, we were getting paranormal responses."
They compiled a video of what they described as visual and audio evidence of paranormal activity and presented it after the tours at Ordinance One and Pete's Grand Central, both downtown New Port Richey bars.
One of the "sightings" included a blue spirit or orb dancing to Motley Crew in what was once the grand ballroom of the Hacienda.
"It was crazy to see this figure dancing on a 9-inch screen," said Derek Furniss, project manager for construction in the Hacienda renovation. It was a work day, so he was there for the investigation, watching the camera screen alongside Mario Iezzoni, then economic development director for the city.
"We both felt a cold blast of air go by us," Furniss said, adding that walking through pockets of cold air is a common experience for workers who call the Hacienda "the hot box." There is no air conditioning.
Among those on the ghost tour was Michelle Savoldy-House. She stayed in the Hacienda when her family moved to the area in the 1970s, and was eager to see what it looked like now.
"I remember there were small rooms with a bathroom. I remember the pictures hanging on the walls of movies stars," she said.
Sheryl Nordyke and Dawn Olivas said they take in ghost tours whenever they go on vacation, and were happy to hear that one was being offered locally.
"This is great — great publicity for the city," Nordyke said.
Also in attendance was Judith Koutsos, long time owner of Spartan Manor, a local wedding venue and event center. She remembers dining at the Hacienda 50 years ago and is looking forward to seeing the final restoration.
While she doesn't buy into the ghosts, she said the tours were an awesome idea. But she would like to see them better executed.
"There's a lot of interesting history in this town," she said. "I didn't think we heard a lot of that."
Ferro said she researched the buildings by looking through old newspaper articles, but also relied on stories told by building owners and workers.
Last weekend, she was back, investigating the J & M Barbershop on Grand Boulevard.
"The spirits in downtown are definitely willing to talk," she said.
Ferro and Gostkowski hope to offer a more extensive tour for Halloween and are partnering with Rock the Boat Productions to make that happen.
"This could be the next big thing for New Port Richey," she said, noting the success of a Paranormal Investigation Experience held in September at the May-Stringer Museum in Brooksville. Tickets went for $50 and sold out quickly.
"Within a 24-hour period, we made $9,000," Ferro said. "Half went of that went back to the museum to help stabilize the building, and the other half went into granting wishes for kids with cancer."
Contact Michele Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6251. Follow @MicheleMiller52.