Today, Biltmore toasts the past and its future

Published July 4, 2007

The Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa will be jumping today, with special holiday food, music and activities. But the guests and staff have more to celebrate than America's independence.

They will be toasting the hotel's future too because finally, it has one.

The sale of the 110-year-old Belleair hotel to Los Angeles-based Legg Mason Real Estate Investors has closed, and the buyer promises to save the 820, 000-square-foot wooden structure - not just save it, but restore it to its former glory.

"They're really going to make it shine, and in my opinion, when it's done, it will end up being one of the top properties in the Southeast, " said Rae Claire Johnson, president of the Friends of the Belleview Biltmore.

Johnson should know.

She worked tirelessly for more than two years to save the historic hotel.

She has been close to the deal and the dealmakers and has been privy to information not generally available to others.

Legg Mason continues to decline to share publicly any of its plans for the property.

The investment group wants to draw up some specifics before talking to the public.

"When we have a concrete plan, we'll invite everyone out to look at it. And my hope is that we put something together that everyone likes, " said Joseph Penner, who heads Legg Mason.

No plan will make everyone happy, but the public is eager to learn how the firm plans to renovate the structure, the credentials of whoever will do that work and what else might be built on the property.

Of utmost importance to locals will be that the hotel remain intact - except for the inappropriate pagoda entrance built by a former owner - and that nothing be constructed on the property that would detract from the hotel's beauty or its designation on the National Register of Historic Places.

Equally important is that the new owners develop a business plan that will keep the hotel viable, because success in the marketplace is essential to the hotel's survival as a historic property.