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Don Vista just misses chance for renovation

The Florida Historical Commission has enough money for 55 projects, but ranks the Don Vista at number 57.

By AMY WIMMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 25, 2002

ST. PETE BEACH -- This was supposed to be the year for the Don Vista Building.

After a dismal showing in last year's historic grant cycle, city officials thought their plans to renovate the Don Vista had a decent chance for a comeback this year.

So City Manager Mike Bonfield said it came as a "disappointment" when he learned this week that the Don Vista project once again fell short of receiving state grant money. The project ranked 57th of 117 applicants.

The Florida Historical Commission had $12.5-million to distribute this year -- enough money to fund only 55 projects.

The city had requested $306,000.

"We improved ourselves 30 slots, but this year was pretty competitive," said Jim O'Reilly, the city's assistant director of leisure services, who shepherded the grant through the process.

St. Pete Beach thought it had reached a turning point for the Don Vista, originally built in the 1920s as an office and home for Thomas Rowe, who built the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa next door. While the building has retained its well-kept, Mediterranean-themed appearance on the outside, the city hopes to remodel and get rid of the dark-wood paneling and dingy carpet.

So far, the city has collected $200,000 for the project from the federal government, thanks to U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, who helped deliver the money in a congressional appropriation.

The city also has set aside $250,000 to use as matching funds. And if some of the projects ranked higher than St. Pete Beach in the state historic grant process decide not to follow through, the city could qualify for state grant money after all.

Earlier this year, the city hosted several state historic officials, including some members of the grant selection committee, on a tour that gave them a firsthand look at the repairs needed.

Mayor Ward Friszolowski and City Manager Mike Bonfield appeared personally before the committee at its ranking meeting last week to answer questions, but committee members seemed pleased with the grant application, Bonfield said.

O'Reilly stressed that the city made strides in getting the Don Vista a step closer to funding: It worked more closely with the state and enjoyed the support of Virginia Littrell, a member of the St. Petersburg City Council and the Florida Historic Commission.

Last year, Littrell questioned whether St. Pete Beach was serious about historic preservation, considering its weak efforts to protect historic homes in Pass-a-Grille.

The federal government, which took over the hotel and Don Vista during World War II, using it as a hospital and later rehabilitation center for veterans, turned over use of the Don Vista to the city in the 1970s.

The Don Vista Building has taken a surprisingly premier role in St. Pete Beach politics in recent years.

Critics of the former city manager, Carl Schwing, blamed his sudden resignation partly on dissatisfaction with Schwing's ability to get along with the arts group that wanted to see the Don Vista renovated. The Don Vista was even a topic of discussion in Bonfield's job interview, when he was hired to replace Schwing.

The city hoped Bonfield, with his experience snagging grants in Gulfport and Madeira Beach, might bolster their chances before the Historic Preservation Advisory Council.

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