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His legacy by the sea

The Belleview Biltmore is Bernie Powell's castle, his life's labor, his love. It enabled him to give back to the community, now he hopes it will be saved.

By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer
Published August 14, 2005

[Special to the Times]
Bernie Powell kneels in front of the Belleview Biltmore Hotel in Clearwater with his daughters, Kathy, left, and Christy in this late 1940s photograph. Powell bought the hotel in 1946.
[Times photo: Ted McLaren]
Bernie Powell greets his wife, Mary Ann, with a good morning kiss at their Belleair Shore home last weekend. The couple has donated millions to Morton Plant Hospital and various charities.

Bernie Powell's first glimpse of the Belleview Biltmore came from the backseat of a taxi.

His cabbie, aware the hotel had been closed to guests for years, asked Powell why he wanted to go there.

"An associate and I bought it, and we're going to restore it," bragged Powell, then a 33-year-old Detroit lawyer. "I'm going to be principal owner and president."

The cabbie wasn't impressed.

"God help you," he said. "It's the biggest white elephant on the west coast of Florida."

Walking in that day in 1946, Powell saw crumbling wallpaper, unhinged doors, empty rooms, a bare kitchen except for a few tables and a brick oven. During World War II, 3,000 soldiers had billeted there while training for duty overseas. It wasn't an easy occupation.

"I ordinarily wouldn't have taken a chance on something like that," Powell recently recalled. But amid the mess, he saw promise.

"There is something about that hotel that has charm," Powell said. "I felt it right away."

Over the next 44 years, he devoted himself to the distinctive Victorian hotel.

He restablished the Biltmore as one of Florida's grand resorts and also built a fortune, solidifying his wealth in 1990 when, at 77, he sold his life's labor for $27.5-million.

Still brokenhearted then over the tragic death of a daughter a decade earlier, Powell turned to philanthropy. His generosity is well documented; a number of buildings in Clearwater bear his name. His giving is especially obvious on the campus of his favorite charity, Morton Plant Hospital.

Not widely known, however, is the magnitude of his future gifts.

Powell has arranged for his estate to donate more than $20-million to Morton Plant, with many million more destined for other charities.

"It's important to know about his decision not only to give during his life, but when he passes away," said Marty Matula, executive vice president of the Morton Plant Mease Foundation. "He saw the things his donations had given to the community, and he wanted them to be maintained and go on into the future."

Now, Powell, 93, finds himself confronting a distressing and painful irony, one he never thought possible. He may outlast his beloved hotel, the place he built up, where he spent his life, where he made the money he has pledged to the community.

He's angry and insulted. He never would have sold the hotel, he now says, if he knew a developer could buy it and raze it.

* * *

In the hallway of Powell's sprawling Belleair Shore home hang a cluster of photos of a wavy-haired brunette, with sculptured features and sparkling eyes. It's a shrine to one of Powell's daughters, Christy Powell Higgins, who died of breast cancer in 1981 at age 35.

"She was so sweet and so good and so pretty," Powell said, his eyes glassy. "Oh God. It was so tough for us."

In the years following her death, Powell and his wife, Mary Ann, honored Christy by donating thousands of dollars in her name to Morton Plant Hospital.

Then, in 1991, a year after selling the Biltmore, Powell memorialized Christy on a grander scale.

In the boardroom of Morton Plant Hospital, Powell rose and addressed members of the Morton Plant Mease Foundation. In his usual careful but strong voice, he explained his deep interest in cancer care.

His daughter Christy, who had lived in California with her husband and two sons, had battled breast cancer, he related. During her treatment, she organized a program providing emotional support and education for cancer victims. She devoted herself to it until she lost her own battle, Powell said.

Powell then startled the board members. He announced he would donate $1-million to Morton Plant to build a cancer center in Christy's name. And he made it clear: He wanted the complex to offer a program like the one Christy so admired.

"There wasn't anybody in my heart like Christy was. And that's why I did that," Powell said. At the time, Powell's cash gift was the largest received by Morton Plant by a living donor.

"It was the equivalent of Bill Gates saying, "I'm going to give away my fortune;' He felt so passionate about helping our hospital," said Dr. Paul Phillips, a cardiologist who now chairs the foundation. "It raised the bar for philanthropy in our county and in Florida."

The Powell Cancer Center, which opened in 1995, is a treatment center providing counseling and support for cancer patients and their families. The complex received a major boost from local philanthropist Carroll Cheek, who also lost a daughter to breast cancer. He donated $1.4-million to create within the facility the Susan Cheek Needler Breast Care Center.

In 1996, Powell and Cheek teamed again, donating more than $3-million to create the Cheek-Powell Heart and Vascular Pavilion at Morton Plant.

"We both have the same philosophy. You're only a custodian of your wealth while you're here on earth," said Cheek, 84. "You have a responsibility to give it back to the people you earned it from."

Three years ago, Powell and his wife Mary Ann helped Morton Plant Hospital tackle an acute nursing shortage. Often, nurses with children can't find adequate child care, said Philip K. Beauchamp, president and CEO of Morton Plant Mease Health Care.

At Mary Ann's urging, the Powells donated $1.65-million to create the Mary Ann and Bernard Powell Child Care and Learning Center.

Powell said in a recent interview that he chose Morton Plant as his prime charity because of its long association with the Biltmore.

The ties go back nearly 100 years. The Biltmore was built by railroad barron Henry Plant in 1895. His son Morton F. Plant supervised Biltmore operations during the first part of the 20th century. In 1914, after his son was injured in a car accident, Morton Plant raised money to build a local hospital. He donated $100,000 on the condition the community could raise $20,000. Morton Plant Hospital opened in 1916, just a short walk north of the Biltmore.

Powell's charity, however, goes far beyond Morton Plant. The Bernard F. and Mary Ann Powell Foundation, which was started in 2002 with a $4.25-million endowment, spreads $220,000 each year among 25 charities, a dozen based in Pinellas County.

In 2003, Powell gave Clearwater's Salvation Army more than $1-million to help build its new campus on Highland Avenue. Last month, at an open house ceremony for the Mallory-Powell Social Services Campus, George Mallory, a life member of the Army's advisory board, told supporters how he convinced Powell to back the project.

Mallory said he phoned Powell and asked if he'd match his $1-million contribution. A week later, Powell called him back to say yes.

"We'll name the facility after you," Mallory said.

"I'll pledge the amount you ask on one condition," Powell told Mallory. "It will have to be named for you as well, and I want your name ahead of mine."

* * *

Powell reopened the White Queen of the Gulf on Jan. 10, 1947. Wanting to keep his eye on everything, Powell moved his family into a balcony suite over the golf course.

He had purchased the hotel for $500,000 with his sister, Nora Mae Peabody, and Michigan real estate broker Roger Stevens. As principal owner, he supervised hotel operations during the high season, then traveled back to Detroit to practice law. He kept that schedule for 26 years.

The hotel eventually re-earned its reputation as a first class establishment, drawing corporate executives, dignitaries and movie stars. The fair-haired, athletic Powell was hotel host, pampering and entertaining VIPs such as Lana Turner, Bishop Fulton Sheen, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale and the Lennon Sisters.

Edward, the Duke of Windsor, became one of Powell's favorite golfing buddies. After the Duke's extended stay in the early 1950s, his spacious room was dubbed the Duke of Windsor Suite.

Don Audibert, now 75, a doorman from 1947 to 1961, remembers Powell and his executive team ushered the hotel into the convention trade, which kept occupancy rates high.

Powell and his first wife, Mary, and their four children - Kathy, Christy, Susan and Christopher - wintered at the Biltmore's Sunset Cottage, which still stands a few paces north of the hotel. The family often dined at Powell's table in an alcove in the Tiffany Room, with dad halting the meal to greet guests.

"It would take forever. We were bored stiff because everybody was coming over the table to talk," said daughter Kathy Strong, 64, of Belleair, who was 5 when her father bought the resort.

In 1972, Powell moved permanently to his current home in Belleair Shore. He and his first wife Mary had divorced years earlier; he and Mary Ann married in 1974.

In December 1979, the hotel, billed as the largest occupied wooden structure, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Six years later it earned four stars in the Mobil Travel Guide.

In 1985, Powell leased the hotel to investors led by Pinellas home builder Charles Rutenberg, but he remained a fixture there.

"He knew what was going on in every department, including the Cabana Club and the golf course," recalled Jo Anne Goodman, his personal secretary.

Rutenberg and his team pulled out in 1987. Powell remained principal owner until he sold the hotel in 1990 to the Japanese company Mido Development. An adviser to the new owners, Powell kept an office in the Duke of Windsor Suite.

Since then the hotel changed hands twice. Jetha Corp., bought it in 1997, and Urdang & Associates of Pennsylvania took it over in 2003.

Powell was horrified last fall when a group called Belleair Redevelopment announced plans to purchase and raze the 108-year-old resort. Powell thought the Biltmore would be there forever.

"When I decided to sell it, it was just to get the money to do all the things that I've done," Powell said.

* * *

Rumors had swirled for months that developers planned to tear down the hotel. But when a firm buyout offer hit the newspapers last fall, Powell was shaken, his daughter said.

"It was still a shock to see it in black and white," said Strong.

At the same time, Mary Ann Powell, 85, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's six years ago, underwent surgery for colon cancer. Powell was overwhelmed. He started cocooning, spending most of the day in bed.

"It tears me to pieces to see him hurt," said Caroline Kirby, his housekeeper and helper of 29 years. "He was sleeping a lot.

The thought of tearing down the hotel burdens him greatly, Kirby said. "I hope they don't do anything to the hotel. I think that would take him before his health does," she said.

Tensions eased in January when Belleair Redevelopment's contract expired. But just three months later, the hotel was under contract again, this time with DeBartolo Development of Tampa. Concern heightened when the hotel's Pennsylvania owners applied for a permit to demolish it.

"It got him down again," said Kirby.

Unable to stay away, Powell recruited his grandson, Matthew Archangeli of Largo, to drive him to the hotel so he could ask questions, look around.

Powell also contributed $10,000 to Friends of the Belleview Biltmore's preservation campaign.

"He was trying to rally all of his friends," said Strong.

Belleair leaders think town rules protect the hotel because of its historic status. Powell has latched on to that hope with the same tenacity he drew on when running the Biltmore.

That's some comfort to family and friends.

"It keeps him going," said Archangeli. "It gives him a mission."

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Staff writer Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 and lorri@sptimes.com.777

[Last modified August 14, 2005, 00:53:19]


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