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Biltmore deal near collapse, rival group says

DeBartolo is abandoning a plan to buy and redevelop the historic resort property, says a rival bidder's leader.

Published September 20, 2005

BELLEAIR - DeBartolo Development has decided not to purchase the Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa, according to the leader of a rival group with a competing offer.

If true, the move spells the end of a controversial plan that would have leveled most of the historic hotel and permanently altered a town of just 4,100 people.

Rory Hiller, a local real estate consultant recruited by a group that wants to save the hotel, said he was contacted Friday by Pennsylvania-based Urdang & Associates, which manages the hotel property for owner Belleview Biltmore Resort Ltd. Urdang's chief investment officer, Vincent Sanfilippo, told him DeBartolo Development had decided to walk away from the deal, Hiller said.

"Urdang called and told me DeBartolo is out, and I'm in first place," Hiller said.

According to Ron Weaver, DeBartolo Development's attorney, DeBartolo's contract to purchase the property expired Friday.

DeBartolo Development declined to talk about its decision in detail on Monday. But in response to an e-mail message from the Times requesting comment on his company's withdrawal, DeBartolo's president, Ed Kobel, wrote, "I will be back in a few days, then I will."

Ed Armstrong, a land use lawyer representing Belleair property owners, said he also heard from an individual in whom he has "high confidence" that DeBartolo Development has decided not to develop the property.

Armstrong said his clients who live near the golf course "will certainly be relieved that the immediate threat has passed."

Hiller's group, which intends to purchase and preserve the landmark, made a $40-million backup offer on the property, Hiller said. Called Hiller Group, the team expects to sign a contract within the week and close on the deal within 60 days.

The group wants to preserve the entire hotel, converting rooms in the older, east-west portion into 83 high-end resort units, and rooms in the north and south wings into 425 condo-hotel units. Those units would be sold to individual owners and rented for part of the year as hotel rooms. The group also intends to maintain the hotel's golf course.

Hiller, who wants to retain the resort's current management, said he is negotiating with InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, an international company that touts its luxury accommodations.

Hiller's partners on the Biltmore project include his wife, Joanne, John Chapman of Belgium and Brian McLeroth of Hawaii. Hiller has previously worked with Connecticut developer David A. Mack, a partner on the Belle Harbor project on Clearwater Beach.

A letter faxed to Town Hall in July reveals that another company, Marcus Hotels, is also interested in purchasing and preserving the Biltmore.

DeBartolo had encountered strong opposition to its plan, revealed at a town meeting Thursday, to build 367 homes on the hotel's 136-acre golf course and save just 145 rooms of the 400-room resort.

Many in the audience weren't thrilled with partial preservation of the hotel, and the crowd booed when DeBartolo's architects on the project, the Evans Group, suggested their plan would "give Belleair heart" by creating a community like Disney's Celebration.

The day after the raucous town meeting, Weaver polled commissioners to see if they supported any part of DeBartolo's plan.

Mayor George Mariani Jr. said he told Weaver he suspected that developing the golf course would be a "Herculean task," and didn't think there was support for the plan from the commission or the community.

[Last modified September 20, 2005, 01:54:19]

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