Is Walesbilt Hotel Project On Verge of Success?
Corporate Leaders Step Forward to Say That's The Case
Last updated 12/21/2021 at 10:17pm
A Walesbilt Hotel redevelopment project is "within 90 days of having a firm loan commitment," according to Michael H. Frost, president of Buena Vista Hospitality Group, Inc. (BVHG). Frost spoke to LakeWalesNews.Net shortly after learning that the Lake Wales City Commission will consider approving initiation of a lawsuit to attempt to regain title to the property this week.
Frost's Buena Vista Hospitality Group is the same organization that completed the refurbishment of the Terrace Hotel in downtown Lakeland more than 30 years ago. That similar-sized hotel is now part of the Hilton Tapestry Collection.
Frost's group has developed or managed dozens of properties not only in Florida, but around the globe. In 1980 BVHG won the right to develop The Buena Vista Palace Resort & Spa, the first new hotel built on Disney property since opening. Their track record since that time is impressive. They maintain offices in England, Italy, and Brazil in addition to the United States, and have been signed on to do the Walesbilt project since 2019.
"If it hadn't been for Covid, we'd probably be well down the road on construction," Frost said, citing lender hesitation after the pandemic struck the hotel industry particularly hard.
"We assist on the financial side," Frost said in a lengthy telephone conversation. "Not so much direct financing, but the confidence that our 40-plus years of experience gives the lender. This project is not going to knock the cover off the ball financially," he added, "but it should make money." Frost said that BVHG acts as owners' representative during construction, including handling furniture, fixtures, equipment, "and everything needed to build and equip" a hotel, he said.
The 1926 Walesbilt Hotel has long been a symbol of downtown Lake Wales. The City's Community Redevelopment Agency is preparing to pour millions into rehabbing streets, sidewalks, and landscaping, including on two sides of the hotel. Long-term plans also include construction of a parking garage, a project that could benefit the hotel as well.
City frustration with Ray Brown's long ownership of the building is evident in discussions between commissioners, and many citizens feel the same, wanting to see the project move forward. Frost says that market conditions are to blame, but that is changing.
"The market is seeing renewed appetite from lenders," he said, primarily from non-traditional private lenders rather than banks. A confidential letter from such a lender viewed by LakeWalesNews.Net indicated that they expected to close the financing of the hotel "in early 2022," a timeline that concurs with Frost's prediction.
Frost said that Preferred Hotels and Resorts brought them into the Walesbilt deal. Preferred is a global marketing association representing high-end hotels. It has operated for more than 50 years and boasts of booking over a billion dollars annually in reservations.
The representation of a pending conclusion to the long search for capital to complete the project may influence discussion at Tuesday's City Commission meeting. Mayor Eugene Fultz also spoke to LakeWalesNews.Net over the weekend and made it clear that if Brown "doesn't want to go to court he needs to step forward and show that he's got the financing and the backing of his affiliates. We want to see the dollar amounts and the scope, the timeline, of what they're proposing."
Brown has complained that a scheduled November meeting to present such information was cancelled by the City on short notice. City Manager James Slaton blamed the cancellation on a disagreement between the City's attorney, Kevin Ashley, and Brown's legal representatives over a non-disclosure agreement written by Brown's attorney which failed to cover the relevant City staff.
Redevelopment of the hotel has long been on the wish list of a series of City leaders, but the project has remained without major financing for ten years. It is hoped that a refurbished hotel will be a centerpiece to the major streetscape project being undertaken by the Lake Wales Community Redevelopment Agency.
Frost stressed that the Walesbilt can be a part of that process. "We signed on to help them through the development process and operate it once it's finished," he said.
BVHG's current projects include such operations as California's Marriott Autograph Collection Hollywood Park, and the Cortona Golf and Spa Resort in Cortona, Italy, where they will provide services to complete the construction, open, and operate a 72-unit luxury golf and spa resort. That project includes a Gary Player Signature Golf Course for which 9 holes have been completed, with the remaining 9 holes still to be constructed.
"Our business is development and operations of hospitality businesses," Frost said, "We have taken over existing projects (as in the Cortona project) but our main business is working through the development process."
Frost acknowledged that a lawsuit from the city at this point in the process would be a serious setback and would complicate the financing process.
"If they throw Brown out with the dishwater when he's this close, what will it be, two, three years down the road?" Frost asked. "Ray (Brown) has a great architect (Rick Gonzalez, a historic preservation expert). He thinks beyond the financials, and really enjoys the historic preservation aspect. This will be a gold star for Lake Wales," he added.