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Developers set to buy historic hotel

A company that planned to raze the Belleview Biltmore last year and build condos has the property under contract.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN and LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writers
Published April 12, 2005

[Times files: Scott Keeler]
The Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa was opened in 1897 by railroad magnate Henry Plant.

BELLEAIR - The developers who tried to raze the Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa and replace it with condominiums last year have the property under contract again, the company said Monday.

This time, however, the Tampa developers are not revealing their plans for the 19th century landmark.

DeBartolo Development, a company that primarily builds shopping centers, has had a deal in place for almost two weeks to buy the 244-unit resort, said Jay Adams, the company's development officer.

But no one from DeBartolo or the resort's current owners would discuss terms of the proposed sale or the future of the 160-acre resort, which includes a golf course and beach club.

"I can verify we do have it under contract," Adams said Monday afternoon, referring other questions to the company's president, Ed Kobel. Kobel did not return messages Monday.

DeBartolo was part of a group last year that proposed demolishing the hotel and replacing it with hundreds of condominiums, an idea that infuriated many residents in the small waterside community.

That plan flopped in January after developers said they could not win public support for the project.

Whispers of a second proposed sale swirled through Belleair over the weekend. Many residents have already promised another vociferous fight if plans include scrapping the historic hotel.

"There is no reason to tear it town. It's ridiculous, destroying your history," said Rae Claire Johnson, who is partnering with the not-for-profit St. Petersburg Preservation Inc. to save the property. Johnson, 56, has been calling government officials and e-mailing fellow residents to stir up support. Someone else has started a Web site: www.savethebiltmore.com

For their part, town officials said on Monday they were again left in the dark. None of Belleair's five commissioners had heard a deal had been struck; they were upset the last time when they read about the potential sale of their most prized asset in the newspaper.

"I hope it's not true," said Commissioner Gary Katica. "It's such a part of this town I would think the people of Belleair would be in an uproar."

"It's going to stir up a lot of people," Commissioner Ernst Upmeyer said. "Basically, I have a great love for that building and I would hate for anything to happen to it."

Further fueling speculation about the hotel's fate, a local construction company asked the town last week about the procedure for demolishing a commercial property, though it would not say what it was.

The town of Belleair, which is about 2 square miles, has just a handful of commercial properties. The company, Cross Construction, would not discuss the project it is researching.

"That question should answer itself in a couple of days," said Dwight Hopkins, a representative.

An executive with the resort's current owners, Urdang and Associates, a Pennsylvania investment management firm, said Monday the firm does not comment on individual investments. Honeywell Inc., one of the larger shareholders in the Biltmore, said in a statement that decisions are made by the Pennsylvania company.

Richard Wilhelm, who runs the hotel, did not return calls seeking comment.

Former Town Commissioner Connie Mudano said it would be a tragedy if developers bulldoze the hotel, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

"This is a very valuable building. It's the center and soul of the town of Belleair," Mudano said. "It's the reason that Belleair exists."

Built by railroad tycoon Henry Plant and opened in 1897, the 820,000-square-foot Belleview Biltmore is regarded as the largest occupied wooden structure in the world and is one of Florida's few remaining historic hotels.

Presidents George Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford have all been guests, as have baseball legends Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth. The Duke of Windsor once wintered there.

But more recently, the resort has struggled to stay afloat financially.

While managers have consistently said the hotel is solidly booked, some employees have said otherwise. In fact, 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.

Mido Development, the Japanese ownership group before that, at one point was reportedly losing more than $400,000 a month on the property it bought for $27-million.

Last month, a judge ordered the resort's owners to pay $36,000 to three companies - including the Tampa Tribune - it had neglected to pay. Brad Cranston, who runs a temp agency, said resort managers gave him the runaround when he tried to collect the $13,012 the resort owed him.

"They were pretty much playing games with me," said Cranston, franchise owner of Adecco Employment Services, which had at least three people working at the hotel for three months starting in April 2004.

Cranston took the resort to court. He said his company received half the money Monday morning.

[Last modified April 12, 2005, 05:57:09]


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