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From the St. Petersburg's Times. June 7, 2007:
BELLEAIR - Time might not be running out for the historic Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa after all.
A Los Angeles-based investment firm that has a contract on the 110-year-old landmark, threatened with demolition since 2004, plans to close the deal on June 20 with the intent of rehabilitating and restoring it, to the delight of local preservationists.
Previous potential buyers, including Tampa-based DeBartolo Development, deemed such a plan economically unfeasible. DeBartolo's option to purchase the Biltmore expired in 2005. It initially had proposed replacing the structure with condominiums.
The threat of demolition has not been eliminated. Town officials on Wednesday said the application that the Biltmore's owner, Belleview Biltmore Resort Ltd., filed two years ago to raze the hotel can be transferred to the new owner.
"The owners never asked for a hearing, so it just kind of hung out there and it remains hung out there," Town Manager Micha Maxwell said of the demolition permit request. "My understanding of it is that it would transfer from the old owner to the new owner."
Maxwell said, though, he has received no indication the contract purchaser, Legg Mason Real Estate Investors, has any plan to demolish the 440,000-square-foot hotel, which railroad magnate Henry B. Plant built and opened in 1897.
"Every conversation I've had with them is they want to renovate it and they want to keep the structure," said Maxwell, who has met twice with Legg Mason's managing director, Joseph Penner, since March.
The only portions of the resort that would be lost are the pagoda-style main entrance that former owners added in the 1990s, and possibly the spa, Maxwell said. No renovation plans have been submitted to the town, he said. Repairs to parts of the roof damaged by Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 finally are under way.
Preservationists who have fought to save the stately Victorian-themed hotel, known as the world's largest occupied wooden structure, say they are pleased with what they have heard from Legg Mason representatives.
"They've agreed to give us a historic [preservation] easement on the hotel, which will protect it forever," said Rae Claire Johnson, head of the Friends of the Belleview Biltmore, which helped introduce Legg Mason to the Biltmore's current owners, represented by Urdang, a Pennsylvania-based investment management firm.
"They want to completely renovate it and bring it up to a four- or five-star property," Johnson said. "And they want to keep as much green space as possible. They're doing everything that we would have hoped."
Legg Mason's Penner did not return telephone calls Wednesday from The Tampa Tribune. Neither did Richard Wilhelm, the Biltmore's general manager. Vincent Sanfilippo, chief investment officer for Urdang, could not be reached.
The Biltmore's purchase price has not been disclosed, but Johnson said she heard it was between $30 million and $35 million. Legg Mason typically invests in apartment complexes, shopping centers and other commercial real estate it may view as undervalued, underperforming or badly managed.
There are few hospitality properties in its portfolio.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2005 placed the Biltmore on its list of America's 11 most endangered historical places after its possible demise inspired a wave of protest in the Tampa Bay area.
The Biltmore has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979.
"I hope it's finally going to happen," Michael Sanders, a Clearwater historian, said of the hotel's restoration. "It's been rolling around for some time."
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