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Monday, Sep 01, 2014

Neighbors skeptical of effort to save St. Pete hotel


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ST. PETERSBURG — Developer Mark Tong feels positive energy in this 99-year-old hotel at the city’s western gateway.

Many people who live nearby do not.

In the past decade, this yellow, three-story remnant of the Jazz Age has changed hands several times, one renovation scheme after another failing to come together.

One owner reopened it for a time as a transient lodge, attracting prostitution, drug deals and other unwelcome activities to the neighborhood of brick-lined streets behind it, residents say.

Some neighbors have urged the city to find a way to bulldoze the old Sunset Hotel at 7401 Central Ave., but the 1915 building has a layer of protection as a local historic landmark, and sporadic renovation has continued over the years.

At present, work crews are back on site in full force, installing drop ceilings in its 66 refurbished rooms, repainting the faded, peeling exterior and getting it ready for a new life as an alternative cancer treatment center where patients will learn to harness the power of positive thought to overcome illness.

Tong says the hotel, renamed Crystal Bay, will be open within a few months.

“It’s all coming together,” said Tong, who runs an alternative healing ministry out of Clearwater.

“It’s all synchronicity. It just falls together perfectly.”

Many neighbors don’t share Tong’s optimistic perspective, watching the hotel decline since he and a business partner first bought it in 1996.

They ran the hotel for several years as an extended-stay lodge for wintering seniors but eventually sold it to Aroc Development Corp. in 2004 when business began to slump.

That’s when the property took a sharp turn for the worse.

Monica Abbott, who lives within sight of the hotel, says it became a “flophouse” and an adjacent parking lot became a “bee hive of stolen autos, drug deals, transients, prostitution,” she wrote in an email.

A glimmer of hope appeared in 2007 as developer Norman Kerr started a series of major renovations, including a new roof, plumbing and wiring, Tong said.

Kerr’s plans met the same fate in the 2008 recession as a similar project in Dunedin to reopen the historic Fenway Hotel as construction financing vanished.

After a lengthy foreclosure process, Tong’s Crystal Bay Properties LLC took back the title in 2012 and began work repairing structural problems in the building.

The property was listed for sale at $2.2 million, though the Pinellas County Property Appraiser has placed its current market value at just over $1 million.

Neighbors have grown weary.

“I think they should tear the hotel down,” longtime resident Paul King said. “It’s a disgrace.”

At a recent city meeting, City Councilman Charlie Gerdes called on the nonprofit group St. Petersburg Preservation to reach out to Tong and perhaps explore tax incentives for restoring the property.

Gerdes says his many constituents in the adjacent Jungle Prada neighborhood and others on the west side of town would be happy to see the hotel renovated, but they’re losing patience.

“There’s just this real frustration that something genuine can’t be done,” Gerdes said.

“It’s kind of like suspended animation where just enough is being done to keep it in the situation that it’s in.”

It’s also an uninviting signpost for the city’s western gateway as one of the first things seen by tourists who cross the Treasure Island Causeway from the beach, Gerdes said.

While the economic downturn has kept progress on hold for years now, Tong insists the end is near.

On a tour of the hotel construction this week, he stopped in a spacious first-floor living room with bay doors overlooking Sunset Park and Boca Ciega Bay across the street.

The exposed wooden slats on the ceiling and dirty hardwood floors show there’s still work to be done, but Tong can already envision patients meditating here.

The 50 guest rooms and 16 suites are also nearly finished, with a clean coat of gray paint, brand new light fixtures and remodeled bathrooms. All that’s needed is drop ceilings and carpet in many of the rooms, he said.

Millions have already gone into reviving this aged property to install the air-conditioning, redo wiring and reinforce the foundation. Tong is looking into tax credits to defray some of his renovation costs, but he’s confident the business will be buzzing by June.

He says he already has numerous clients who have expressed interest in staying here.

Abbott is skeptical her neighborhood’s decade-long “sentence” will end anytime soon.

“TEN years is a lifetime when it is in your front yard,” she wrote recently in an email to city officials.

“Where are the protections of quality of life for the families that are burdened by this “landmark?’”

Tong says the finished hotel will bring a lot of money into the community in the end. He hasn’t let the stress of the project or the push back from residents get to him.

“Their happiness should not be contingent upon what happens with this building,” he said. jboatwright@tampatrib.com

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