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Hacienda's sale: crimped lifestyle

Clients at the hotel may lose their cherished freedom when the city buys the landmark to revitalize downtown.

By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002


To city officials, the Hacienda Hotel is the crown jewel of New Port Richey's heritage, a pink stucco symbol of an era when their town was a movie-star haven.

To Roy Hunt, it's home.

Hunt is a 59-year-old recovering alcoholic with bipolar disorder. He is one of 1,000 mentally ill adults who have lived at the Hacienda since Gulf Coast Community Care bought it 17 years ago.

He has a tidy mustache, a second-grade education and a tentative handshake. He likes the freedom to walk to the library and dreams of going back to school one day.

"I'm getting help here," he said. "But I'm trying to help myself at the same time."

But city officials say Hunt's home doesn't fit into their plans to revive downtown as a thriving commercial district.

"It's an incompatible use in downtown -- we need to acquire that building," said Jerry Paradise, the city's redevelopment director.

"It's good for the city to have the most historic property in the community," he said. "Control it and actively incorporate it into downtown."

City officials say their interest in the building does not stem from pressure from downtown merchants, who have long complained that Hacienda residents disturb their businesses.

Last week, the state agreed to pay half the cost of buying the Hacienda.

Gulf Coast officials say they might be willing to sell. But they expressed concern about finding a place that serves their residents as well as the current downtown location.

On Tuesday, the City Council will decide whether to use the state grant to help finance the purchase, with a price tag that could exceed $1-million. If the council accepts the grant, the historic landmark would become a tourist destination.

But it would be one that generates little revenue and would require city subsidies to restore, operate and maintain. The council will vote without knowing any details on how the city might pay those expenses.

Freedom is good

Ask some of the Hacienda's 75 residents about life there, and they talk about a level of independence unknown at psychiatric hospitals.

"I liked having the freedom to go out to eat at Jimmy's restaurant," said Ronnie Whitfield, 57, who has schizophrenia and a past of drug abuse.

Some residents take part in exercise classes, computer training, group therapy, outings to parks, and briefings on current events. They can hang out on the veranda, under the shade of lush palm trees, smoking cigarettes by the bubbling fountain or they can lounge on the couches in the cavernous lemon-colored ballroom.

Residents can earn "points" by doing "activities of daily living" such as laundry. Each week, they can redeem their points for treats like cookies, soda, combs and cigarettes.

A psychiatrist visits once a week, and Gulf Coast's staff of 50 includes nurses, trained mental health technicians and licensed clinical social workers. The staff takes attendance of the residents at least every two hours.

Most of the Hacienda's residents have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, manic depression. Some have had substance abuse problems.

About 10 of the residents will probably never leave because their behavior is too extreme, said Miriam Williams, clinical administrator for Gulf Coast, a Clearwater-based nonprofit agency that gets public and private funding.

But the rest -- like Whitfield -- move on to more independent assisted living facilities or move in with family members.

Medication had allowed Whitfield to lead a normal life: she worked as a hotel maid, trained to be a heavy-machine operator, married and had six children. But when her husband died, she stopped taking her medication and started taking heroin and cocaine.

She came to the Hacienda in November, after serving 30 days in jail on a drug charge. Now, she is back on her medication, 30 pounds heavier and well enough to go live with her daughter. Last week, she sported a bright turquoise sun dress, gold-hoop earrings and a confident grin: "I'm packing up," she said.

Residents are allowed to sign out of the Hacienda for two hours at a time and set out for local restaurants, the mall, the library or the park.

Problems for business

This freedom has been a point of contention for nearby businesses.

"Sometimes they follow in customers, begging for money," said Robin Kelly, owner of Back Home Imports, a gift shop on Main Street. "They're not supervised; they shouldn't be out there on their own."

One Hacienda resident brought in a fish patty she wanted to trade, Kelly said. Last week, Kelly saw a resident sit down in the middle of Bank Street.

"I don't have the answers," Kelly said. "I just think they should be better taken care of."

Cindy Campbell, co-owner of Main Street Hair Salon, has had some trouble with some Hacienda residents. But the salon has sort of adopted one of them, a man in his 60s named John.

"He's just really sweet," said Campbell. "He comes in and gets haircuts. Our customers like him and some have paid to give him manicures."

In March, a 69-year-old Hacienda resident wandered off and was hit by a car while trying to cross U.S. 19.

Williams acknowledges the business owners' concerns but stands by the Hacienda's policies and practices.

"You have to allow the residents increasing freedom and the opportunity to rehabilitate themselves, and with that comes some risk," she said. "We can't predict everything. We are staffed 24 hours and have procedures for frequent checks."

Other nearby business owners said they worry about the sex offenders that live in the Hacienda -- which backs up to the playground in Sims Park.

According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, only one sex offender has lived there since 1997.

"We don't advertise that we're a program for this population, but we are open to it," Williams said.

"Many people do have criminal histories. All clients are evaluated by psychiatrists on admission. We determine if there's a current threat. If we feel like there's any risk, we may increase the level of supervision or have limits on where they can and cannot go. Some clients never leave the property without supervision.

The facility is not locked, and Williams concedes that it's not "an absolute" that they can't get out, but that the staff monitors them closely.

A glorious past

When the Hacienda opened in 1927, it was the most exclusive address in town.

Gloria Swanson and other movie stars had bought homes on the Pithlachascotee River. The city, founded just three years earlier, seemed destined to become the Hollywood of the South. The Hacienda Hotel would be its centerpiece.

Regal dances were held in the grand ballroom. Babe Ruth and silent film stars like Raymond Hitchcock stayed there. The hotel had a secret bordello and an underground tunnel to the river -- to smuggle in the prostitutes and the moonshine.

But the hotel closed after the 1929 stock market crash. It had various owners and uses over the years and fell into disrepair.

When Gulf Coast acquired the Hacienda in 1985, there were more than 100 fire, building and health code violations to correct.

The agency poured more than $1.2-million into correcting the code violations and making repairs. It replaced the plumbing, the air conditioning, rotting wood; it reinforced the second floor and replaced the windows in a way that's historically accurate.

Gulf Coast then got the Hacienda listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

The bordello has been transformed into offices for Gulf Coast's case managers. The secret tunnel to the river is used to store canned foods.

Williams says the hotel is good for Gulf Coast's purposes because of its proximity to shopping, a library and county bus stops that can help residents gradually acclimate themselves to society again.

"It's ideal in terms of location," she said. The agency is not opposed to moving to a rural setting, as long as residents can access public transportation. Being close to business districts is "important to get them back to a high level of functioning."

A new plan

Last June, redevelopment director Paradise brought City Council members a plan for the historic landmark: The city could apply for a state grant to buy the property, then lease space out for retail, meetings, a restaurant or even a bed and breakfast.

Those ventures would draw tourists and residents to downtown New Port Richey and create a stream of revenue that would pay for the hotel's acquisition and renovation.

No purchase price has been negotiated; the Hacienda is valued for tax purposes at $865,103.

The grant would be for up to $1-million, but the city would have to match every dollar put up by the state. That means the city would have to pay half the purchase price.

Fred Metcalf, the city's director of development services, said New Port Richey would likely borrow money to pay its share and pay it back with its redevelopment trust fund -- tax dollars earmarked for redevelopment.

The grant also comes with a big condition. The hotel would have to be some sort of museum or outdoor education center and operate like a state park: any admission charges would have to be poured back into maintenance of the facility.

Under the original proposal, the revenues from a hotel or restaurant would absorb the operations and maintenance cost, Metcalf said. But if it were a museum, the city would have to bear those operating costs.

City staff has not yet figured out what the ongoing operating and maintenance costs would be or how they would be paid, he said.

Janice McDonald, Gulf Coast's executive vice president, said that the building has required constant work.

"It's in a lot better shape than it was (when they acquired it), but it is quite expensive to maintain," she said.

Paradise thinks it is still a great venture.

Even under the grant restraints, the Hacienda "would still draw people downtown, which would create foot-trade, and those people would spend money downtown," he said.

The city could avoid the grant restrictions by buying the building entirely with its own funds.

Tuesday, council members will take the first of two votes on the matter.

"I'd love to save it as a landmark," council member Susan Clark told the Times last week. "But that's a lot of money to turn into a museum. I think there are an awful lot of "ifs' there."

"I still think that it can be a hub," said Council member Scott Chittum, "if it's used the right way.

"It does break my heart that it's not going to generate revenue. But the opportunity for what it has to offer can be just as grand."

-- Staff Writer Chris Tisch and researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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