Friday, March 30, 2012

Is Pinellas County Still In The Bush League?

Pinellas, the breakaway county formerly known as West Hillsborough, is 100 years old this year. In 1912, tired of being under-represented and marginalized by Hillsborough County’s government, located in Tampa, Pinellas residents successfully seceded from Hillsborough.
Compared to older cities like St. Augustine, Pinellas County is still a young pretender. There are probably Live Oak trees somewhere around here that are older than the county.
Since there isn’t a whole lot of history associated with the county, you would think every effort would be made to hang on to our treasures from the past. That, sadly, doesn’t seem to be the case.
Two of those treasures, the Belleview-Biltmore Hotel and the Fenway Hotel, popped up again in separate stories in the Tampa Bay Times. Developers, local governments, and citizens have been dithering for years over the fate of these two historic buildings.
The Belleview-Biltmore in Belleair was built by railroad tycoon Henry Plant in 1897 as a lure to get more folks to ride in his trains. Hugely popular to a newly mobile middle class, the resort offered golf, tennis, fishing and sailing in the nearby Gulf of Mexico. The 850,000 square foot building is said to be the largest all wood structure in the world.
The Fenway Hotel in Dunedin was constructed in 1925, during Florida’s first economic boom. The Mediterranean Revival architectural gem has had its share of famous guests, including Clarence Darrow, Carl Sandburg, and Babe Ruth. Since closing as a hotel, the Fenway has been a bible college and later an international business school. The building, across from the Intracoastal Waterway, now stands empty.
At this point, it seems unlikely that either hotel will survive in their present forms. There does not appear to be enough money, power, or interest to pull it off.  A sense of sadness becomes all the more so when one realizes that Tampa Bay is home to more millionaires than other areas of the state. Perhaps what we need are more billionaires.
Money, of course, is not the sole answer to the hotels’ survival. There is also the shared commitment of all interested parties and a few people of vision with enough persuasive power and determination to make it happen.
In the past, Pinellas County was home to the International Golfing Association (IGA), the nascent Florida Aquarium, and more recently, Florida Gulf Coast Museum of Art, Wikipedia, and the Pinellas County Arts Council.
All either no longer exist or have moved on to greener pastures.

The “bush leagues” is a baseball term, but it is an appropriate name when considering the overall quality of life of an area.

Historic preservation is certainly an important component in any quality of life assessment. To some, the fate of the Belleview-Biltmore and Fenway Hotels will determine if Pinellas County finally rises out of the bush leagues.