EDITORIAL: City Should Allow Private Sector to Assess Seminole
Last updated 1/10/2021 at 11:54am
The long-delayed completion of the Walesbilt Hotel redevelopment project is no doubt as frustrating for city officials as it is for many residents. Now it seems that personal frustrations stemming from that delayed project may threaten yet another potential redevelopment concept.
When the City of Lake Wales finally gained clear title to the Walesbilt Hotel in 2007, it seemed that a solution to the long-vacant building was on the horizon. Yet city fathers bungled the opportunity, and whiffed on the chance to seriously consider proposals, by appointing a committee of business people lacking experience in commercial redevelopment, architecture, or historic preservation to decide the future of the building.
That committee passed over two other proposals to award control to Ray Brown of Winter Haven. Brown gained clear title from the city barely a year later when the City's economic development director determined, without documentation, that Brown had expended the required million dollars on the building.
Since that time Brown, a stickler for architectural details and historical accuracy, has spent a decade, but has yet to conclude his project. That’s where the frustration comes in, but it could lead to the unfortunate demise of yet a second building with potential. City officials say it's not personal, but they have demonstrated through their words and actions that they have no confidence in Brown.
While continuing to seek a partner for the Walesbilt, Brown now has one with an interest in the nearby Seminole Hotel. That’s where the City has apparently drawn a line in the sand by attempting to obstruct Brown’s access to the second building, which he would like to convert to apartments. (More downtown housing was among the first identified goals of an expensive urban planning process currently underway.)
City officials call the building “unsafe” and have restricted access to only two persons at a time, yet photos provided by City Code Enforcement document no structural issues with the Seminole. Problems caused by water intrusion and leaks are familiar to many Lake Wales residents. Most have seen that in the wake of hurricanes. That’s what the photos portray.
The building is certainly not fit for occupancy, but inspectors and contractors should be able to navigate the minor hazards portrayed. Yet condemning the building and ordering its demolition seems to be the City’s chosen path, to Brown's frustration.
Real estate investment and rehabilitation is a specialty of many firms, and not the normal purview of City employees. They should let qualified engineers and contractors determine the costs and rewards of needed repairs, and determine if this project is feasible.
It’s time for all parties to take a step back, and a deep breath. The decision by City of Lake Wales officials to thrust themselves in the path of potential private redevelopment of the Seminole Hotel is one fraught with risks. It’s time to reassess that choice.