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City Files For Final Judgement to Regain Walesbilt Hotel Title

Attorneys representing the City of Lake Wales have filed a motion for final judgement in their two-year pursuit of a lawsuit against Dixie Walesbilt LLC. The motion seeks to dismiss all counts in the suit beyond the two already decided in favor of the city.

Robert Connors

The sunlight gleaming through the windows of the vacant Walesbilt Hotel may be a prelude to lights returning to the structure, which has remained dark since it was sold at auction in 1995.

The two counts already decided by the court concluded that Dixie Walesbilt principal Ray Brown had committed "fraud in the inducement" to trick the city into assigning the title to his firm.

The city had granted title to the property to Brown's company without cost in July 2011 after being assured by company manager Brown that financing to develop condominiums was in place and that as many as 19 units had been "presold" during a contractual period.

Judge William Sites found those claims to be fraudulent after it was shown that Brown testified under oath in a related suit that there was no financing deal, and that no units had been presold.

Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson revealed the filing in remarks to fellow commissioners at Tuesday's meeting of the board. Gibson, who is also a private attorney, is part of a three-person legal team that included Kevin Ashley of Peterson Myers along with City Manager James Slaton.

Robert Connors

Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson informed commissioners of the new motion for final judgement at Tuesday's board meeting. If the city receives a favorable ruling, which Gibson predicted was near "a slam dunk," they will be able to begin a process to see the building restored, potentially as a hotel, creating a new economic engine for the downtown area..

The "remedy" for the final judgement stated in the motion is "recission," which would mean that the title to the historic 11-story hotel would be returned to the city, restoring the situation prior to the creation of a contract that awarded the title to the private Winter Haven firm.

"Thus, we own the hotel," Gibson said, referring to the situation if final judgement is awarded. That would still allow Brown to file an appeal, Gibson had told the commission at an earlier meeting, "but that would not necessarily be bad, because "once a final judgement is entered, regardless of appeal, the plaintiff who has the benefit of that final judgement can levy on assets" of the defendant. Brown is the owner of the nearby American Legion Building, among other assets.

"Fortunately, with the remedy of recission, you can get attorney fees," Gibson added. "That's a big number." Those fees were estimated in March to be more than $185,000. "That will take an additional hearing," Gibson said.

News file photo

The once luxurious interior of the Walesbilt Hotel makes it an ideal candidate for refurbishment as a historic destination property. Reuse as a hotel would provide millions in economic benefits annually to the downtown area.

"There are no guarantees in my business," Gibson said, "but this motion for final judgement is as close to a slam-dunk as it gets."

The historic hotel, constructed in 1926, is the dominant centerpiece of the city's downtown, which is undergoing a multi-million-dollar transformation. Ownership of the structure would allow the city to seek a new private partner to restore the once-spectacular interior of the building to it's former grandeur and serve as an economic engine for the area.

 

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