City looking to perform CPR
Officials hope that by purchasing a cluster of properties, they can get the heart of Largo pumping again.
By LORRI HELFAND
Published January 1, 2006
LARGO - With a bustling train depot, a theater and hotels, the corner of West Bay Drive and Seminole Boulevard was once the heart of Largo.
Now the city hopes to resurrect the downtown hub by purchasing a cluster of properties near First Street SW.
The Largo Hotel, which originally opened in 1908, is one of those properties. The goal is to eventually market the block to hotel and restaurant developers.
The city also has its sights set on the historic Johnson Building, a faded white structure with a pink-trimmed awning, near the railroad tracks.
City Manager Steve Stanton said Largo is negotiating with Largo Hotel owner Ronald Steiger, who is asking $850,000 for his property. A city appraisal assessed its value at $750,000, he said.
Known as Hotel Largo in its heyday, the structure was built by the owner of Largo's original feed store, F.M. Campbell. The current building is actually three structures: the original hotel, the former Rufus McMullen family home and a building connecting both structures.
The configuration would make it extremely hard to move, said Elmer Williams, president of the Largo Area Historical Society.
That fact, and the structure's current condition, mean it probably can't be saved, Stanton said.
But Bob Delack, past president of the Largo Area Historical Society, disagreed.
"It could be restored if someone was willing to take it on," he said. He insisted the hotel was just as important as the Johnson Building, which the city wants to preserve.
Burt Tilkens, one of a handful of people who rent apartments or rooms at the Largo Hotel, said he knew the complex was on the market, but wasn't preoccupied with losing his home.
"I know how it goes. If the city wants it, the city will take it," said Tilkens, 46.
But Keith Graham, who rents a tiny room without a sink or refrigerator, couldn't fathom the idea of being displaced.
"Why should I walk away from this?" said Graham, 61, gesturing toward his tight quarters, crammed with four guitars, a television set, sleeping bag, a Schwinn bicycle, two mattresses and other belongings.
For years, the city has tried to buy the Johnson Building - Largo's only structure on the National Register of Historic Places. But owners Joyce Siegel and Charles Johnson haven't been receptive to the idea.
Still, Stanton is determined to restore it and make it the anchor of downtown someday.
"With the exception of the (Largo) Feed Store, the city has ignored its heritage. I don't think we've done enough to preserve the historic nature of the community," Stanton said.
The siblings inherited the building after their mother, Frances Johnson, died in 1994. Johnson could not be reached for comment. Siegel currently lives on the building's second floor. When a reporter visited the building recently, a woman on the second floor balcony declined to comment.
The Johnson Building, also known as the Pinellas Hotel, was listed on the national historic register in 1987. It was built by the current owners' grandfather, Louis Steele Johnson, in 1911. The first floor once housed a drugstore, grocery, hardware store and other shops, while the upper floor served as a hotel and rooming house.
In the 1950s, the family converted the building to the Johnson Brothers Auto Machine and Supply Co., but the building has been inactive for years.
Today, the bottom floor is stuffed with boxes, gas cans, hardware, car parts, antique furniture, motorcycles and assorted junk.
Williams said he'd hate for the building to be destroyed by neglect.
"The shame of it," he said, "is to watch it sit there and decay."
Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified January 1, 2006, 00:28:15]
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