City Commission To Consider Suit To Regain Walesbilt Hotel
Developer Declared in Default of 2010 Agreement
Last updated 12/20/2021 at 5pm
The long-delayed resolution of the contract between the City of Lake Wales, the Community Redevelopment Agency and Walesbilt Hotel owner Ray Brown may be heading to a concluding chapter. Brown had been granted title to the building more than a decade ago on an agreement to redevelop the structure.
Tuesday's City Commission agenda will include consideration of whether the city should file a lawsuit or take other action to regain possession of the eleven-story structure after declaring Brown in default on the original agreement.
The City had hired attorney Kevin Ashley of Peterson Myers law firm to give a legal opinion as to whether the city had grounds for a lawsuit. In a nine-page memo presented in March, Ashley concluded that Brown's company, Dixie-Walesbilt LLC, had committed several material breaches of the February 2010 redevelopment agreement with the city, providing what Ashley called a solid factual basis for a lawsuit. Commissioners then voted to declare a default, giving Brown 60 days to cure the deficiencies.
The 2010 agreement provided that within 30 months his company would construct, market, own, and lease approximately 17,800 gross square feet of commercial retail space on the hotel's ground floor, redevelop the hotel's exterior to its historic appearance, construct a health club in the hotel, construct up to 40 residential units, and construct on-site hotel parking of at least 240 parking spaces. Of those, only work on the hotel exterior has been performed.
Brown also pledged to donate $50,000 for sidewalk improvements and $30,000 to the local historical society, which had advocated for the preservation of the building. Those amounts were not satisfied, according to City records.
If the City Commission votes to pursue a lawsuit, it is likely that Ashley will continue to represent the city. A finding of default may allow the city to regain title to the building.
The hotel was completed in January 1927 and has a rich history of famous investors and guests, which Brown can recite. It last hosted guests in 1995, when it was sold at auction, passing through the hands of Vero Beach investor Anders Nyquist, who ordered demolition of much of the interior. The city won the building from him after a lengthy court battle, but soon afterwards turned it over to Brown on the promise that he would redevelop it.
In an hour-long interview and tour of the exterior of the structure granted to LakeWalesNews.Net, Brown pointed out many of the unique features and conditions that must be considered in an accurate restoration, including such details as the method used in the 1920's to ship the marble facing the north and south ground floors, pointing out that steel rods later caused the marble to crack along those stress points.
Brown maintains that he has on more than one occasion come close to arranging financing for redevelopment, only to find himself stymied by an uncooperative city response. He is an avid historic preservationist, and a stickler for the detailed work needed to put the building back to its original condition. He says his hope is to develop "a full-service hotel, not an extended stay where they wash your sheets once a week."
During his ten years of ownership Brown has rehabilitated the basement plumbing and electrical service, painted the exterior, and reconstructed the mezzanine exterior portico using original hardwoods. At one time the top was lighted, but that has been discontinued.
Brown's exposure to historic preservation came, he said, as a young man helping his father disassemble a three-story barracks building built in 1901 to salvage materials. He went on to study architecture in college. He currently owns and operates a medical uniform supply business in Orlando. "I don't want to be in the public eye, I just want to do my job," Brown said.
The Lake Wales CRA, also a party to the original agreement, is preparing to invest millions of dollars in a reconstruction of city streets, including such features as street trees, restored brick pavements, bike tracks, and wider sidewalks. The project includes both Park Avenue and First Street, which flank the east and north sides of the hotel. The hotel is considered by many to be the centerpiece of downtown redevelopment.
Brown has attracted minor investors, including Palm Beach Architect Rick Gonzalez, who has created beautiful conceptual drawings of the renovated hotel accompanied by a conference center which would occupy adjacent buildings including the Care Center store and the nearby former American Legion building. Gonzalez sits on the State of Florida Historic Preservation board.
"It's a very difficult project," Gonzalez admits. "Nobody wants to fund a hotel in a small city." Despite the difficulty, Gonzalez believes that the building could be a viable hotel once again, if it could be part of the conference facility he envisions. "The detailing, interior and exterior, is as nice as any historic hotel I've ever seen," he said.
Brown, says Gonzalez, "is the most knowledgeable client" he's worked with, including "skills and techniques" that are required to restore the building. "In fact, that work is difficult," he said, "and then Covid..."
Gonzalez saluted the city's effort at restoring downtown, hailing urban planner Victor Dover's work, saying that it could "take off, or be a ball and chain for years." That second possible outcome is perhaps the driving force behind the city's determination to try to regain control and attract a new developer with the financing to make the rehabilitation happen on a contracted timeline.
Lake Wales Mayor Eugene Fultz, for one, is eager to see the logjam resolved, recognizing the impact a restored hotel would bring to the downtown area. "That's going to be a centerpiece," he said.
Any action authorized by the City Commission could takes many months to be decided by the courts. The city recently had success in obtaining title to another key downtown property, the 1930 Seminole Hotel on North First Street, through a court-ordered binding arbitration process which settled the matter for $50,000 plus expenses.