Group hopes drone will save Belleview Biltmore Hotel from demolition

Henry Plant built the historic Belleview Biltmore Hotel out of pine wood back in the 19th Century. Now a group that hopes to save that landmark from the wrecking ball is counting on 21st Century technology to sway the opinion of Belleair town leaders and attract new investors.

Belleview Biltmore Hotel
Belleview Biltmore Hotel

They've paid for a video produced with a drone and a GoPro camera and posted it on YouTube to stir up emotions and rally support.

"It was definitely intended to get some attention," said Jason Aquilar."To showcase the fact that it's still standing and it could be restored."

The video offers spectacular views of the crumbling hotel built by Henry Plant as a tourist destination in Pinellas County in 1897. A small drone piloted by Wayne Cathel offers sweeping hollywood style images of the now-crumbling landmark once dubbed the "White Queen of the Gulf."

Pretty pictures, not withstanding, attorney Ed Armstrong--who represents the hotel's current owner, the developer who wants to buy and demolish most of it to make room for town homes and condos, as well as the nearby Belleair Country Club--insists that it just doesn't make financial sense to restore the aging hotel to its former grandeur.

"No reasonable person would believe that restoring the hotel is feasible as a practical matter," Armstrong said.

Armstrong's client, developer Mike Cheezum of JMC Properties, has proposed saving a small portion of the hotel that he would move and remodel into a small boutique hotel near the front of the property. But that's as far as Cheezum's willing to go.

"While it may be sad, it's time to redevelop this property,"Armstrong said.

Aquilar claims his group of passionate preservationists  savetheBiltmore.com  has been talking with three groups of investors who may be willing to buy the property and refurbish the Biltmore, given enough time.

He showed Eight On Your Side a letter from Craig Smith, VP of Peabody Hotels & Resorts that expresses support "for a full-scale restoration, rather than a substantial demolition that would only save a fraction of the original historic structure."

But after years of stalemate and debate, city leaders in the Town of Belleair appear ready to take action at two meetings December 9th, starting at 4:30pm.

The developer has requested permission to demolish the landmark and make way for town homes and condominiums and there is already a non binding city board recommendation to do just that.

Aquilar believes any move to demolish the Biltmore would violate the city's historic preservation responsibilities recently granted by the state. "It's a piece of this area's history,"Aquilar said.

He's hoping town leaders will watch his group's video http://youtu.be/s0MNgY34vmwbefore before making a final decision.

Armstrong insists no matter how sentimental anyone gets over the YouTube video, that doesn't change the underlying facts.

"The facts are the economics do not work," Armstrong said. "They never will work."

Aquilar tells Eight On Your Side that new investors can indeed make it work, they just need more time. But, he agrees time is running out.

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