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Scaled-back plan for historic hotel wins support in Dunedin

By TAMARA EL-KHOURY
Published May 19, 2007


DUNEDIN - The bid to return the historic Fenway Hotel back into a premier resort came a step closer Thursday when the City Commission signed off on the 150-room development plan.

But the win for developer George Rahdert, a St. Petersburg attorney, came only after two hours of presentations, public input and a promise of 37, 000 free ice cream cones.

And it came more than a year after his initial proposal for a 250-room hotel was thwarted by neighbors. Rahdert, an attorney for the St. Petersburg Times, said, "I was delighted with the discussion and obviously with the outcome."

Rahdert wants to convert the 1924 building at 453 Edgewater Drive into a condominium and hotel complex. He told the commission that his project will provide an economic benefit to the city.

One of his supporters - Richard Wilhelm, the president and CEO of Trust Hotels, which manages the historic Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa in Belleair - also made a unique promise on Rahdert's behalf.

On opening day, the Fenway's ice cream parlor will dole out a cone to any Dunedin resident who shows up.

The appearance of Wilhelm hinted that Wilhelm may eventually have a more formal role in the Fenway.

Rahdert said he is in an informal consultation partnership with Wilhelm, who has been involved in more than 100 hotel projects, 30 of them being historic hotels.

That partnership may become more formal in the future. Although both men said there has been no agreement that Trust Hotels would manage the Fenway, neither ruled out that possibility.

"We are working with Mr. Rahdert with plans to come to an arrangement to manage this wonderful rebirth of a grand historic hotel, " Wilhelm said.

Rahdert said it is time for him to start talking to management companies and said "I would love nothing more than to have someone of their caliber managing the facility."

Thursday's meeting went far more smoothly for Rahdert than last year's.

The majority of the residents who spoke before the City Commission supported Rahdert's plans, a sharp contrast from last year when Rahdert first unveiled his plans for a hotel with 250 rooms and a parking garage.

Since then, Rahdert has shed 100 rooms from his plan, ditched what he called the "much maligned and disconcerting parking structure" and met with city staff and residents to address concerns about increased traffic, noise and more.

Vice Mayor Deborah Kynes said she believed the project was compatible with the future of Dunedin.

"I truly believe that this is historic preservation, " she said.

But Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski unsuccessfully tried to convince the commission to reduce the hotel rooms from 150 to 139. When her effort failed, she joined the commission which unanimously voted to approve the development agreement.

In other commission news Thursday:

The commission voted to give the city's economic development leader a new title, a 10 percent raise and a new department to run: Department of Economic and Housing Development.

Robert Ironsmith, currently the assistant director of the Department of Community Services, will now earn $104, 640.

Commissioners and City Manager Robert DiSpirito spoke of the importance of retaining Ironsmith, noting he'd been courted by four different communities offering higher pay.

"Bob is, without question, the most talented economic development specialist with whom I have worked in my entire career, " wrote DiSpirito in a memo.