BELLEAIR -- Rory Hiller has never been involved in a preservation project, though he has represented huge developers, such as David Mack in his Belle Harbor Condominium project on Clearwater Beach. He’s not quite sure what originally prompted his interest in saving the Belleview Biltmore Hotel except that, as he says, “I thought it was an enormous challenge and I love a challenge.” It has been every bit the challenge he envisioned, yet Hiller reiterates his commitment to renovating the property without tearing it down and with community support.
Hiller recently learned that his forty million dollar bid for the Belleview Biltmore Hotel had been accepted by Urdang & Associates, the hotel’s present owners. He, along with four other investors - Brian McLeroth of Belleair, John Chapman from Belgium, and two other high-profile investors from New York whose names will be disclosed at a later date - have done their homework. They have studied the financial feasibility of this project for eight months while waiting for DeBartola give up their fight with Belleair’s residents.
When asked where DeBartola went wrong, Hiller is quite outspoken. “They (DeBartola) had never developed a project like this.” They had previously developed shopping centers and this was a way to expand into the residential market. “They thought they needed a grand, Disney World type plan, to fully utilize the property,” explains Hiller. But they didn’t seek input from the residents or elected officials. “The first thing we’ll do,” explains Hiller is, “hold meetings with Belleair Country Club members residents and elected officials and survey their vision for the property.” This will allow the citizens of Belleair, those that know the area best, to have input into the hotel’s future.
In October, BB&G Architects of New York City, whose work includes the Plaza and Mandarin Hotels and are respected as one of the world’s foremost historic renovation architects, will begin to look at renovation options for the hotel. Hunt Construction, best known locally for building Raymond James Stadium, will also meet with the developers next month.
On top of the forty million dollar purchase price of the hotel, Hiller’s group plans to spend approximately eighty million dollars for the renovation. The only plans they have for the golf course is to possibly tear down and rebuild the clubhouse, to resemble the clubhouse at St. Andrews Golf course in Scotland. The golf course itself may eventually be turned over to a non-profit group, or to the Town of Belleair’s Parks and Recreation Department.
In order to preserve the hotel, without massive residential development, “I had to align myself with a charitable organization such as the ‘Friends of the Biltmore’,” explained Hiller. He will give the “Friends” organization 1% of the Hiller Group entity. The “Friends” will help raise federal and local historic preservation grant money to help offset the Hiller group’s cost of remodeling the “center spine” of the hotel. This center section of the building will hold 83 hotel units and will be managed by Intercontinental Hotels. The north and south wings will also be preserved, but will become hotel/condo units. It is in selling these units Hiller hopes to recoup his investment. In approximately five years, Hiller’s development group will sell their holdings in the historic hotel to the “Friends of the Biltmore.” Profits from operation of the hotel will help the “Friends” ensure that the hotel is maintained as a national historic treasure.
Rory Hiller admits that his risk in investing in this project is huge, so why do it? Hiller’s calm façade softens a bit as he explains, “I think that maybe, just maybe, I could get lucky and help the folks of Belleair save this hotel. There is so much history there worth saving.” Perhaps this tiny town with an “edifice complex” has finally found an ally with the bucks to save this significant part of Belleair, Florida and America’s history.
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