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Historic hotel to get new owner

Henry B. Plant's 1897 Belleair landmark is under contract to a shopping mall developer.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published November 18, 2004

[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Former owner Bernard Powell calls the Belleview Biltmore Resort and Spa "still the most beautiful, happy building of any hotel I have ever seen."

BELLEAIR - A Tampa development firm has a contract to purchase the Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa, a move that could signal the end for the 19th century landmark.

DeBartolo Development, which primarily builds shopping centers, confirmed that it has the property under contract but declined Wednesday to reveal its intentions for the 22-acre, 244-unit resort.

The mayor of Belleair, where the resort is located, said developers told him it could primarily be a condominium project.

For years, outsiders heard the resort was struggling financially and rumors of a sale were constant. Interested real estate developers called monthly about the property, resort investors said.

"I suspected (DeBartolo was) most serious about it," said Belleair Mayor George E. Mariani Jr. "The property is very, very valuable. Whatever is there has to make some sort of economic sense."

DeBartolo president Ed Kobel did not reveal whether the resort's off-site holdings, the Belleview Biltmore Golf Club and the Belleview Biltmore Beach Club on Sand Key, were part of the deal.

The golf courses at the adjacent Belleair Country Club are not affiliated with the resort.

The Biltmore's current ownership group, headed by Pennsylvania real estate investor Scott Urdang, would not comment on the proposed sale.

But former resort owner Bernard Powell said demolishing the 820,000-square-foot hotel would be foolish. Powell owned and operated the resort for 43 years before selling it to a Japanese firm in 1990.

Powell celebrated family weddings there. He golfed with - and beat - the Duke of Windsor on the Donald Ross-designed 18-hole golf course.

"I just don't think it would make sense," said Powell, now 92 and living in Belleair Beach. "The hotel is still the most beautiful, happy building of any hotel I have ever seen."

Opened in 1897 by railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant, the resort once defined the area as the world's elite shuffled through the halls. Presidents George Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford have all been guests, as have pro wrestler Hulk Hogan and baseball icon Joe DiMaggio.

But over the years that shine has dulled.

While managers have consistently said the hotel books lots of business, some employees have said otherwise. The Biltmore also has been unable to come close to fetching the average daily rate of other old landmark waterfront hotels in Pinellas County. Indeed, the property has a history of steep losses for past owners.

Atlanta hotelier Salim Jetha, who bought the hotel for $16-million with his family in 1997, said a year later they were losing $228,000 a month despite trimming expenses.

Mido Development, the Japanese ownership group before them, was reportedly losing more than $400,000 a month at one point on the property it bought for $27-million. Mido was buried under a mortgage it couldn't afford and property taxes it couldn't pay before it could unload the property.

Many of the hotel's challenges relate to its claim of being the nation's largest occupied wooden structure.

The building has been a termite magnet in a state notorious for the voracious, wood-eating insects. The rooms are air conditioned, but the two miles of its high-ceiling corridors are not. Aluminum siding on the exterior walls of the 107-year-old structure reduced the need to paint it as frequently, a job that consumed 1,000 gallons of paint. But the structure has 1,700 windows to keep clean and a roof with 67 gables.

On Wednesday, Richard Wilhelm, the president of the company managing the resort, said the Biltmore has doubled its gross revenues since 2002. There is no termite problem now, he said, and the resort is regaining momentum.

"The hotel has not been sold. Period," Wilhelm said. "The hotel is operating fine and looking forward to a very busy holiday season. The first quarter of 2005 is very solidly booked."

But as the resort buzzed with activity Wednesday, a series of tarps covered the roof, a casualty of the summer's storms.

"The resort has been in play for many, many months," said Clearwater development attorney Ed Armstrong, who is not involved in the DeBartolo deal. "There's been a lot of speculation in the development community about redevelopment opportunities.

"I don't know what the developer's plans are," he said. "But it's likely the building is functionally obsolete."

Preservationists are readying for a fight to keep the resort, but Kobel, with DeBartolo, has pledged to move toward a compromise.

"We are working to find a plan with a certain degree of harmony that meshes the needs and desires of the community and the preservationists," Kobel said in a statement Wednesday.

Michael L. Sanders, an area historian who has compiled a pictorial history of north Pinellas County, said the Biltmore put the county on the national stage a centuryago. The resort has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979, but the designation would do little to stop developers' plans, Sanders said.

"It would probably be the biggest travesty in recent county history," Sanders said. "The town of Belleair is at the intersection of caring for their history and not being a good steward. No amount of money can recreate what is there now."

Mariani, the town's mayor and a 50-year resident, can see the sweeping resort and its flexing roof from his back porch. He understands the hotel's historic significance.

That might not be enough to save it, he said.

"If it is that important to a community, then why economically has it not survived?" Mariani asked. "It's been common knowledge that from an economic perspective, the owners, whoever they've been, have had problems making ends meet. It is a huge facility that doesn't get enough traffic to justify its costs. If someone's going to buy it, that's the nature of the business."

- Times staff writers Steve Huettel and Mark Albright contributed to this report. Aaron Sharockman can be reached at 727 445-4160 or asharockman@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 18, 2004, 00:15:17]


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