Fenway Hotel benefits from common ground

By DIANE STEINLE Editor of Editorials
Published May 27, 2007

It took hard work and compromise, but the new owner of the historic Fenway Hotel and Dunedin residents and officials finally found common ground.

St. Petersburg lawyer George Rahdert sat in the front row of the Dunedin City Commission chambers Thursday with a smile on his face as residents and commissioners moved toward approval of his new plan to redevelop the landmark property on Edgewater Drive into a condo-hotel.

A year ago, Rahdert encountered only resistance from neighbors and others offended by his plan to create a 250-room resort with a 300-space parking garage. A Times editorial urged Rahdert and residents to search for common ground because no one would benefit if the old hotel, most recently the home of Schiller International University, fell into even more disrepair.

To his credit, Rahdert spent the past year working to better fit his plan to the expectations of Dunedin residents and officials. He reduced the number of rooms to 150, which will be contained in the restored original building and new wings. He eliminated the parking garage, added a wall around the 6-acre property, modified the entrance and internal road network and saved some of the grassy front lawn.

Rahdert, who represents the St. Petersburg Times on First Amendment issues, wasn't able to satisfy everyone. At the commission meeting last week, a few people still spoke against the project. They object to the intrusion of such a commercial operation into their quiet neighborhood or said the wall will block their views.

But this time, more residents spoke in favor of the plan, and after some discussion, commissioners unanimously approved the development agreement with Rahdert, opening a new chapter for a valuable historic property that at one point seemed to have no future.

One of the surprises at Thursday's meeting was the appearance of Richard Wilhelm, president and CEO of Trust Hotels and manager of another historic Pinellas hotel, the Belleview Biltmore.

At first, Wilhelm appeared to be just someone with an interest in historic hotels speaking in favor of restoration of the Fenway. But when Wilhelm said he would buy an ice cream cone for any Dunedin resident who showed up at the planned hotel ice cream shop on opening day, people in the room wondered whether there was an unannounced partnership between Wilhelm/Trust Hotels and Rahdert.

In fact, there is, Wilhelm acknowledged after the meeting, though it is not a financial partnership at this point. Rahdert's interest in historic restoration is well known in south Pinellas. Wilhelm has extensive experience with historic hotel restoration and operation, so Rahdert was smart to approach him for advice about how to proceed. Wilhelm confessed that he would love to get the contract to manage the hotel after it is finished. He predicted the hotel will be a spectacular success with tourists and that Dunedin will be pleased with the restoration.

Ice cream or not.