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Workers struggle to keep Crown alive

A management firm is hired to keep the hotel's doors open as employees pick through the damage left by previous owners.

By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002


INVERNESS -- With its pristine white clapboard exterior and navy-blue striped awnings, the Crown Hotel looks frozen in time from the outside, seemingly unchanged for at least the past decade.

Inside, however, is a different matter.

A week after assuming control of the aging Inverness institution, employees from a Jacksonville hotel management company are still trying to sort out the mess left by the previous owners, Thomas Dryburg and his wife, P.C. Hyland.

The new managers have fought to keep the utilities turned on. Faulty air-conditioning units have been repaired and the filthy kitchen received a good scrub.

But there's still a lot more work ahead, said Henry B. Fonde, senior vice president for Landcom Hospitality Management Inc.

"We have a ways to go," he said. "But you have to walk before you can run."

Earlier this month, Circuit Judge Curtis J. Neal appointed Landcom to act as receiver until foreclosure proceedings are completed. The company will receive a $4,000 monthly fee from Small Business Loan Inc., which loaned Dryburg and his wife $1.15-million to buy the Crown.

The loan company said the Crown owners defaulted on the loan.

In exchange for its monthly fee, Landcom must keep the doors open and the money flowing, a formidable task given the hotel's current state of disarray.

According to Crown employees, Dryburg and his wife spent Labor Day weekend loading a large U-haul trailer with bedding, pictures and furniture from the hotel. The security cameras had been removed from the lobby and the kitchen and bar had been stripped of provisions.

While Dryburg and his wife told the workers they were leaving for vacation, Inverness police concluded they had absconded.

Staffers from Landcom immediately began the task of rebuilding the landmark after the court hearing Sept. 6. A manager from the food and beverage division has inspected the kitchen, and a representative from human resources will arrive Monday to speak with employees.

The hotel remains open, with a smattering of guests. The bar has reopened and is offering a limited food menu.

But progress is slow, Fonde said. Employees have spent much of their time fending off angry creditors and taking stock of the items left behind.

The Crown Hotel has a long and time-honored history in Inverness. Originally called the Orange Hotel, the building was constructed in the early 1920s, according to Inverness city clerk Marilyn Jordan.

It was sold to businessman Lynwood N. Smith in 1959, who renamed it the Colonial Hotel. The building was dubbed the Crown Hotel when English investors refurbished it in 1981.

The hotel was purchased by entrepreneurs Jill and Nigel Sumner in 1990. They operated the Crown until November 2001, when it was bought by Hyland and Dryburg, a Central Florida businessman who boasted of extensive hospitality experience, including stints as an employee at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia and as owner of properties in St. Augustine, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

The new owners immediately announced plans to restore the British-style inn and pub to its former glory. They also planned to add a European-style spa and transform the restaurant into a five-star gem.

But it was not to be.

Just weeks after assuming control, Dryburg and his wife offended members of the Rotary Club of Inverness by abruptly announcing the club was no longer welcome to use the Crown's conference room for weekly lunch meetings.

Inverness police officers were called to the hotel numerous times to investigate reported disturbances, and the structure caught fire in February, forcing about 10 guests to evacuate.

Later that month, Hyland was accused of slapping a 66-year-old guest during a dispute on hotel grounds. The guest, Betty Anderson, said Hyland became enraged when she tried to redeem a coupon for a free meal.

In June, the owners were accused of failing to pay nearly $3,000 in tourist tax, prompting the county to file a lien against the property in June. Staff turnover skyrocketed.

All the while, Dryburg was failing to make monthly payments to Small Business Loan Inc. to repay the $1.15-million loan he used to buy the Crown, according to court records.

Dryburg promised to pay $8,687 each month to repay the loan. However, he made only two payments, the last one in March, court documents showed.

Small Business Loan filed suit in August, asking a judge to foreclose on the property unless Dryburg could repay the balance immediately.

The disappearing act was a sad ending to the owners' strange tenure, local officials agreed.

Mary Craven, the county's tourism development director, said the Crown has always been one of the county's largest draws for out-of-town guests.

"It could be considered the tourism anchor for the Inverness area," she said. "It's regretable that it's in the state it has been reported to be in."

Several large touring groups who used to book their clients at the Crown for at least one night had recently dropped the hotel from their schedules, Craven said.

"The hotel has such a great reputation in Inverness . . . I hope it can be revived quickly," she added.

Jill Sumner said she is "heartbroken" over the current state of the Crown. But she and her husband, who recently spent four months traveling through America, have no plans to buy back the property.

"No way," she said in a telephone interview Friday.

"They've done too much damage. In nine months, they've managed to destroy everything we had worked for."

Sumner said she had misgivings about selling the building to Dryburg and his wife from the very beginning. But he had assured them he had big plans for the hotel and would take good care of it.

"He told us all these wonderful stories and I believed him," she said.

The building had fallen on hard times when the Sumners purchased it in 1990, and it took them nearly eight years to turn it into a money-making operation, Sumner said.

She fears the next owners will have an equally daunting task before them.

"I just hope someone will buy it who has a lot of money and is willing to put in a lot of work," she said.

-- Carrie Johnson can be reached at 860-7309 or cjohnson@sptimes.com.

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