CLEARWATER – Tuesday night, Belleair Town Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a plan that would level most of the historic Belleview Biltmore hotel.
St. Petersburg developer Mike Cheezem plans to preserve part of the west wing and transform it into a boutique inn and surround it with new condos and townhomes.
The 1890s-era Biltmore — known as the “White Queen of the Gulf” and listed on the National Register of Historic Places — played host to presidents, celebrities and generations of Pinellas residents and guests before closing in 2009.
Since then, it has been the subject of multiple restoration bids by preservationists unable to raise the necessary money during the economic downturn.
Friends of the Belleview Biltmore, a preservation advocacy group, has held fundraisers, tried to attract a wealthy buyer via social media and unsuccessfully sued to block the hotel’s sale. It also held a news conference in which government-employed preservationists from across the nation urged town leaders to heed restoration success stories elsewhere.
Historic board members, who approved Cheezem’s original plan for a replica inn in September, unanimously praised the developer’s “goodwill” offer to pour extra money — without promise of tax credits — into saving more than 38,000 square feet, or 10 percent, of the hotel.
Echoing historic board members, commissioners lamented their difficult decision.
“I think everyone knows that my position is unambiguous about trying to restore the hotel,” Fowler said. “However, I have come to the conclusion that it’s time to move on and it’s time to turn to Mr. Cheezem and give him all the support that I can.”
Added Commissioner Tom Shelly: “It’s time to move on. We can’t live in fantasy. The expert witnesses are correct. It’s time to do what’s right for the town.”
Cheezem expects to close on the $6.6 million purchase from the hotel’s Miami owners in late January and begin the months-long salvage and demolition work in March. His firm, JMC Communities, plans to break ground on the residences in the summer.