Commissioner Stephen Fowler believes the Belleview Biltmore can be restored and brought back to life.
BELLEAIR – While most Belleair commissioners would like to resolve the issue of the future of the Belleview Biltmore Hotel and in the words of Mayor Gary Katica, “move on,” one of their number consistently takes the opposite stand.
Commissioner Stephen Fowler would rather slow things down and let time take care of it.
In recent weeks Fowler has made his position clear on more than one occasion. In January he moved to delay for six months the introduction of a new zoning designation that would have helped the sale of the hotel to developer Mike Cheezem. That effectively stalled the process and kept Cheezem from moving on with plans to demolish the hotel and build townhouses on the property.
Most recently, in early February, he was the lone vote against selling two acres of the hotel property to the neighboring Belleair Country Club, which wanted the land for a parking lot.
Fowler, 69, insists he is not a contrarian, but does admit on this issue he is cautious and wishes his colleagues were, too.
“I’m saying slow down here, with the economy recovering I’m firmly convinced it is doable,” he said.
Fowler, who is an architect with a Clearwater office, has lived in Belleair since 1976 and he’s been on the Belleair Commission for more than a dozen years. He’s seen the hotel issue, including its closure in 2009, up close and personal. He believes it can be restored and brought back to life if people would just slow down and let it happen.
“The cost estimate for the restoration of the hotel is actually $180 million,” he said. “The average room rate of about $200 a night with a 65 percent occupancy would return 10 to 12 percent on the investment, and those are two-year-old numbers, they could be even better today.”
He said the hotel restoration would bring much more to the community than townhouses.
“Construction on the hotel would create 2,500 jobs and when it was completed would provide from 600 to 1,200 jobs,” he said. “Once completed the townhouses would hardly create anywhere near that number of jobs.”
As the debate over the future of the hotel rages on, the question begs; where are the buyers who want to make such an investment? Fowler said he has knowledge that a buyer is out there, although he does admit putting a deal together isn’t an easy task.
“In this economy to try to put together a $150 million construction package isn’t something you do overnight,” he said. “It is very complicated, very difficult to put together all the pieces with tax credits and historic tax benefits and so on. I’m not a money kind of guy but people tell me it is a complicated issue.”
Fowler wouldn’t reveal who he was talking about although one man has been on the periphery of the issue since the beginning. Miami-area Architect Richard Heisenbottle has wanted to buy the hotel, but has fallen short on several occasions. He has been unable to come up with the money to the point where the Ades brothers, the owners of the property, through their attorney Ed Armstrong, say they will no longer deal with him.
Whoever else may be out there remains a mystery.
“I’m not at liberty to say, honestly, especially with Cheezem in the picture,” said Fowler.
Fowler led the way in creating the six-month delay for consideration of the RM-10 zoning designation thus delaying the sale of the property to Cheezem. At the time he got the support of Commissioners Tom Shelly and Michael Wilkinson. However, at the most recent commission meeting, amid considerable community outcry, Shelly and Wilkinson voted to re-consider that motion. Eventually Fowler went along with them. But he did not go along with them in voting to allow the sale of two acres to the Country Club.
“I don’t think a parking lot is the highest and best use for that piece of property,” he said. “Once again it challenges the historic preservation ordinance because that is all part of it. My thinking is the club could put a second deck of parking over the existing lot south of the clubhouse. It would provide shaded parking and would get more spaces than the two acres and be closer to the clubhouse.”
He said there was another reason why he objected to the sale of the land.
“By selling off that two acres you reduce the density of the hotel or mixed use, you lose up to 40 units of density; there has got to be some value there.”
Fowler agrees with Katica’s estimates of an annual $800,000 tax loss as long as the hotel remains closed. But he said patience is required if the town is to ever get back to that level.
“His numbers are based on a restored hotel. We’re getting $45,000 a year from that property now. No one really knows what we’d get from a residential development, perhaps as much as $500,000. Clearly a restored hotel would be better,” he said.
At the most recent Belleair commission meeting residents in favor of allowing developer Cheezem to move ahead with his plans were clearly in the majority. They clapped loudly when one of their supporters made a point, and jeered loudly when an opponent had something to say. Fowler was often the subject of those jeers. In fact at one point he fought back.
“I listened when you had something to say, so now I’d appreciate it if you were quiet while I have my say,” he said.
Despite all that acrimony he says he isn’t about to change his mind.
“No sir, I’m not going to change anytime soon, because a restored hotel is the highest and best use for the town and Pinellas County and Tampa Bay.”
“I am just so afraid that everyone is listening to the people who say do something,” he said. “They say do something right or wrong. Just do something. Well doing something wrong is forever.”