Hotel Revitalization in Bradenton, Florida

Downtown Bradenton had an eyesore of a building that was once the most prominent in its skyline.

Whatever you called it, the pink building some folks contend wasn’t pink in the first place was being revived into an elegant Hampton Inn. Yes, that does sound weird. But the attention to detail in restoring and preserving an 87-year-old building and turning it into a modern hotel is quite the accomplishment.

I was fortunate to cover the lead-up to the hotel’s opening and help document some history, as well as share some ghost stories:

Hampton Inn to open $15 million renovated downtown Bradenton hotel Tuesday

By CHARLES SCHELLE – cschelle@bradenton.com | Bradenton Herald

November 18, 2013

BRADENTON — When the doors open Tuesday to the Hampton Inn & Suites, the renaissance will truly begin for the old Manatee River Hotel.

Once dubbed the “Pink Palace” for its exterior walls, the 87-year-old building has been transformed through a 10-month renovation, creating new life for the once-again ritzy hotel. It features a shining atrium entrance with dazzling marble floors at one entrance and a sweeping colonnade room that radiates class. At the top, balconies offer romantic views of Manatee River and the Bradenton skyline, feeding into the local lore of the time when Clark Gable roamed the Friendly City.

All of these touches mean that Bradenton has rescued a historic property on the brink of destruction to surgically repair it into a glistening beauty.

The life-saving measures for the Manatee River Hotel also meant the death of the Pink Palace in many ways, gutting most of the floors, stripping the pink skin off for an organ transplant and a nip and tuck on the aging Queen of the West Coast. But she’s off the operating table, and new blood is pumping through Bradenton’s arteries by the name of the Hampton Inn & Suites.

“The heart is truly beating,” said Dave Gustafson, director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority and a former hotel development specialist for Benderson Development. “It’s a pinnacle building downtown. We lost the Dixie Grande in the ’70s, and we were close to losing this building, and thank God we didn’t.”

The Hampton Inn & Suites is part of the Hilton family of hotels. Once the final OK is given by Hilton’s top staff, the Hampton Inn & Suites Bradenton-Downtown Historic District, 309 10th St. W, is expected to accept its first check-in 3 p.m. Tuesday.

“There is no doubt the city of Bradenton has been very supportive,” Hampton Inn general manager Spurgeon Nisbett said. “The city of Bradenton, our company have had very high expectations. We have to deliver. We know we have very big shoes to fill.”

The 119-room hotel is restored to its natural off-white color and features as many original or historically equivalent fixtures and finishes on its way to become listed on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to the $15 million renovation.

“It kept its historical, unique charm with all the modern conveniences of a Hampton Inn & Suites,” said Kelly Ann Dixon, director of sales and marketing for the hotel.

Widewaters Hotels, a Syracuse, N.Y., company, undertook the massive project with the help of a slew of incentives.

The city will kick in $1 million in up-front payments to Widewaters, with half secured by the developer plus another $100,000 in street and sidewalk work, $1.5 million in property tax rebate over a 15-year-period, plus a 70-year lease for parking in a city-owned lot on Fourth Avenue and a deal for parking in the metered lot on Third Avenue.

That’s on top of $1.8 million in federal historic preservation tax credits if the projects meet all of the National Parks Service requirements.

Without that and the city leaders committing to the preservation, the building would have been torn down, said Brian Long, director of development for Widewaters.

“We never wanted to demolish it. I think the turning point was when we had discussions with the city, and county to some degree, they were willing to come up with some economic incentives with tax abatement and some up-front DDA funding to come out and support this,” Long said. “When they stepped up and said they want a hotel here, and they want this hotel here, it’s a better project because of it.”

 

Readying for first night

If guests want to be among the first who stay Wednesday, they will have to line up at the front door as early as they want, waiting for Hilton to flip the switch and officially accept check-ins. Check-in time is 3 p.m., and rates will initially range from $129 to $209 a night.

Among the first-night guests waiting in line to get a room will include Gustafson, Mayor Wayne Poston and other city and county leaders; the general public can get their chance to be among the first as well.

Hilton employees are taking notice of the hotel, too. The central reservation center that handles many of the bookings for the East Coast through central Texas is based in Tampa.

“They know this property is coming online. They’re watching it, they’re counting the days down, and they all want to come down and see this hotel and see this downtown,” Dixon said. “The anticipation at central reservations is electric.”

Hilton/Hampton employees making their own reservations are coming from throughout Florida and as far as New York, Dixon said.

Housekeeping is going through its final routines to make sure everything is perfect the first night, and Nisbett walks every floor each night to make sure all the details are completed.

“In terms of putting the rooms together, they have gone into each room several times and meticulously to make sure each room is clean from top to bottom,” Nisbett said. The 32-person staff was handpicked from a pool of 300 applicants, with some working in the top hotels in the area, including the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, he said.

 

Charm with modern amenities

For Widewaters, the project combined several types of hotel projects rolled into one, Long said.

“You had the entire exterior that was a renovation, and the first floor where we renovated or restored or replaced everything with historic replicas, but the second through top floors was more similar to a brand new building because it was gutted, so we were starting with a brand new palette,” Long said.

The wood paneling on the columns, for instance, had termite damage, so workers had to match the templates and stain the wood to match the original. In the atrium, artists hand-copied the stenciling and repainted the designs while atop scaffolding; original light fixtures illuminate the hall. The colonnade’s manatees with mermaid fins were brought back to life and painted in their original gray, while the Spanish terrazzo’s intricate design adds pop to the floor.

“They can come back here years from now, and their handiwork will still be there,” Nisbett said of the workers who brought the hotel back to life. “The people who were doing the sanding on the staircase, to see them take the sandpaper? There was a lady, she was in the morning when I got here and in the evening, and she was painstakingly sanding it down, making sure every groove she got it right. That’s pride to me.

The first floor of the building at one time featured a barbershop, radio store and Stevenson’s clothing store, and those old storefronts with the individual entrances and display windows remain as part of three meeting rooms with names such as Desoto and Anna Maria. The doors can be opened up for private events to welcome people off the street without having to walk into the lobby.

The rooftop garden is long gone, but the new outdoor pool on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street easily doubles as a small playground. It’s the only heated, saltwater pool at any hotel in Manatee-Sarasota, Dixon said.

Other historic aspects of the hotel have been salvaged, such as the mailbox, mail chute, elevator dials and other artifacts. Those features are in storage, and the hotel is devising a plan to put those items on display. But it won’t be soon. The busy tourist season is here and the hotel has to focus on getting guests through the doors before the added items can be attended to, she said.

 

Rooms with a view 

Each room and floor offers something different throughout the Hampton Inn.

“You can go to each of the 119 rooms and see something a little different because of the way it’s laid out,” Nisbett said.

What they all do have in common is that they are all non-smoking, are pet friendly and every bed has a fresh duvet every day.

The hotel has more than 13 room types, whether by the bed size, particular corner or floor.

Each room brings a modern touch to the historic hotel. Guests will find a lap table to surf the free Wi-Fi from bed, an office desk, a USB charger on the nightstand, large flat-screen TV and other amenities including a microwave and mini-fridge. Suites feature couches with pull-out beds and extended office desk and come with a private balcony.

For extra headroom, take the second floor.

“The second floor has the high cathedral ceilings because the whole second floor at one time was a ballroom,” Dixon said. “All those rooms have soaring ceilings, so it’s a really unique feel for the hotel.”

The second floor also features a large balcony for guests to congregate and breathe in the Bradenton breeze. Most individual rooms along the way have private balconies.

The historical layout and modern amenity mix does make for some interesting combinations. Guests who mind modesty might want to be aware of the window that offers a view from neighboring buildings into a clear glass shower on higher floors, especially in corner rooms. A blind is provided for privacy.

Rising to the top of the building to the six and seventh floors, the large windows on the sixth floor give way to breathtaking views of Manatee River, Palmetto and the city skyline. The seventh-floor balconies also provide an up-close look at the teal tile splashing some color on the off-white walls.

“The seventh floor, every room has the rounded windows, so they have a really fun, unique view,” Dixon said. “No cookie cutter rooms here.”

Gustafson predicts those top floors will become popular requests for Independence Day fireworks viewing.

 Economic boost

The hotel is expected to provide a jolt to the revival of Bradenton being extended through Riverwalk.

The city should expect a $2.5 million economic impact in spending during the first year of the hotel, Long said, based on the average guest spending $50 a day in the local community.

“That doesn’t include the money they spend for staying here,” Long said.

Tourism and sales taxes will account for an additional $500,000, according to the city, and leaders hope that property values will rise to increase the tax base.

Events and ceremonies are already building themselves around the hotel.

Dixon is handling 15 wedding event requests, including some who want to have their ceremony in the 100-seat colonnade where the acoustics amplify the quietest sounds.

Another 20 group bookings are sold through October 2014, including the 2014 Florida State League All-Star Game at McKechnie Field. The Bradenton Blues Festival in December will be a sellout, with some rooms coming online once Hampton fully activates the reservation system, Dixon said.

It Works Global, which is working to finish its headquarters in Palmetto, is arranging for regular meetings at the hotel and will book rooms for conferences planned at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, she said.

Beyond the hotel, other parts of the city will feel the Hampton Inn’s presence. The hotel’s in-room directory was hand-selected to feature only local businesses from the Bradenton area to have guests support them instead of attractions from Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The nearby Pier 22 restaurant is the official caterer of the Hampton Inn, and was built at the same time the hotel was, giving the pair a special historical relationship.

Chef and general manager Greg Campbell is trying to handle seven wedding inquiries already for the hotel, and figures business across the river can benefit.

“We’ve got the Palmetto Riverside Bed and Breakfast across the river, and the bride and groom may stay there, but the whole wedding party might stay at the Hampton,” he said.

At O’Bricks Irish Pub & Martini Bar on Old Main Street, general manager Rick Willats said he knows a full hotel without a full restaurant will be good news for the Old Main restaurants and bars.

“It’ll have an absolutely huge impact. They serve a continental breakfast in the morning from 7 to 9, but if you have a full hotel with no place to eat and drink, then they’ll come downtown. Everything down here is just going to be incredible,” Willats said.

Gustafson is working to bring more restaurants and businesses downtown, thanks in part to the demand created by the new hotel.

“My increase in business calls since Riverwalk opened is up 40 percent. I assume once the hotel opens, it will go up another 20 percent on top of that,” Gustafson said.

Downtown Bradenton Hampton Inn now open for business

BRADENTON — The Hampton Inn & Suites in downtown Bradenton is officially open for business after a 10-month, $21 million renovation.

People began showing up right after the 3 p.m. opening Tuesday to get a look or to book a room at the former Manatee River Hotel, which opened in 1926. The hotel, 306 10th St. W, is now accepting reservations for any of its 119 rooms, plus its meeting rooms — and the community certainly took the hotel up on its offer.

Mary Walsh was the first one to check in Tuesday, all thanks to her eager grandchildren Nick and Hunter Walsh, 11-year-old twins.

“They wanted to be the first ones and wanted to camp out and hope they had video games,” Walsh said, relaxing in her room with the bouquet of flowers, box of candy and bottle of Don Perignon provided to her by the hotel for being the first customer.

Walsh, a retiree who has lived in Bradenton for eight years, is also being joined by grandchildren Joeleigh and Jozlyn Walsh for a slumber party to help celebrate the hotel.

“They can stay up as late as they want to as long as they wake up with a smile on their face,” Walsh said.

Hampton Inn General Manager Spurgeon Nisbett called the first night a success, with about half of the rooms booked by 6 p.m. A traditional opening night at a hotel garners about six check-ins, he said.

“I am impressed by the response from the community,” Nisbett said.

Katie and Doug Loose of Parrish were also among the first people who booked a room at the hotel, but opted to reserve a special night.

“We wanted to stay here New Year’s Eve — and thought that would be really good — and try to get a balcony with a view of the river,” Kathy Loose said.

The pet-friendly rooms were also a factor in booking a room for the holiday, Doug Loose said.

Joel and Christy Degitz of Fort Wayne, Ind., were taking a break on a bike ride and decided to witness the grand opening. The couple have vacationed in Bradenton for more than a decade and love the look of the Hampton Inn.

“We’re going to ask them for a booking right before spring break and stay a couple days,” Christy Degitz said. “We love the Riverwalk.”

Mayor Wayne Poston was overjoyed looking around at the hotel.

“I can almost cry,” Poston said. “I’m so excited about this. We had other hoteliers who wanted to tear the building down and build another building and we said no. This is part of Bradenton and part of our history and our architectural distinction, if you will.”

Bob Bartz, president of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, said the city is fortunate the 87-year-old hotel was saved.

“It’s going to be wonderful for the downtown and provide much-needed room space for events downtown as well as sporting events,” Bartz said.

Once dubbed the “Pink Palace” for its exterior walls, the hotel turned back the clock with its original buff color while adding modern amenities. Its original nickname was Queen of the West Coast, because it was at one time the largest hotel south of Tampa along the Gulf Coast, according to Herald archives. The original light fixtures along with the original marble floors and tile are all featured in the building, spruced up by modern furniture and touches throughout, including the only saltwater pool at any hotel in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

“The place speaks for itself,” said Dave Gustafson, director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority. “The citizens of this community need to walk through this building and recognize its historical significance. Widewaters did an amazing job.”

Widewaters Hotels, a Syracuse, N.Y. company, undertook the massive project with the help of incentives, and is the operator of the hotel included in the Hilton brands. The city is providing $1 million in up-front payments to Widewaters, $100,000 in street and sidewalk improvements, $1.5 million in property tax rebates over a 15-year period and a 70-year lease for parking in a city-owned lot on Fourth Avenue West, plus a deal for parking in the metered lot on Third Avenue.

The federal government is also granting up to $1.8 million in historic preservation tax credits if the renovation meets all National Parks Service requirements.

 

Florida’s Manatee River Hotel History: An 87-year Journey to the Bradenton Hampton Inn & Suites

Nov. 18–BRADENTON — The Manatee River Hotel, set to reopen Tuesday as the Bradenton Hampton Inn & Suites, was conceived as a ritzy playground for the roaring ’20s but saw its high-roller hopes go to the gutter when the Great Depression hit and never truly recovered.

“Rendered in Italian Renaissance style it will be one of the most imposing structures in the entire state of Florida,” read a July, 9, 1925, article in the Manatee River Journal-Herald announcing the hotel’s plans.

The project came on board thanks to investor H.C. Van Sweringen, half of the Van Sweringen brothers who established the affluent Shaker Heights suburb of Cleveland.

Van Sweringen assembled a team of minority investors of historic Bradenton families to help fund the $850,000 hotel, including R.M. Beall, E.P. Green, H.K. Tallant, H.D. Horney, J.B. Gregg and G.P. Smythe. Van Sweringen held 150 shares in the stake of the company while each of the city leaders held a 20-share stake.

Construction began on the Mediterranean revival hotel in August 1925, and when

completed in 1926 the hotel was valued at $2 million. It was operated by the American Hotel Corp., which was the largest hotel operator in the nation at the time.

The accommodations were tiny despite the grandiose treatments, totaling 250 rooms with Murphy beds. A single night, single occupancy stay at the hotel cost $2.50 on opening night.

The seven-story structure with a beige/off-white color featured a roof garden with a tarp-covered band shell for parties with cocktails, helping to give the ritzy hotel the nickname “Queen of the West Coast.”

Today’s Hampton Inn roof is just a roof, leaving no room for a nightcap and a dance.

Local lore and news clippings at the Manatee County Historical Records Library boasted that the hotel was the spring training quarters of the St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies and other Major League Baseball teams and once home to Hollywood stars.

Mentions of Herbert Hoover, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Babe Ruth and Al Capone are found in the clippings, but stories of their presence at the hotel are hard to find. The Historical Records Library doesn’t have the hotel’s registration book to verify their stays. Gable’s stay in Bradenton has been documented through his sailing on the Manatee River by the Twin Dolphin Marina, and he could have stayed at the hotel to watch spring training.

Gable was a first cousin of Red Sox player Joe Cicero, who attended spring training in 1929, according to the book “Spring Training in Bradenton and Sarasota” by Raymond Sinibaldi.

One of the more spectacular parts of the building didn’t survive. When built, the hotel was connected to the existing Braden Apartments, which became the Robert Whitney Apartments (also at one time a hotel). The two buildings were connected with a magnificent colonnade on the second floor, featuring a courtyard and pool between the buildings. The apartments were demolished in October 1964 to construct Ninth Street.

The Manatee River Hotel closed in March 1966 due to declining business and was reborn later that August as a senior home and hotel called the Riverpark Hotel, managed by Florida Retirement Hotels.

Manatee River Hotel Inc. sold the property for $1.7 million and it was painted pink in 1983. In 1991, the Riverpark Residence Hotel was renovated and reopened as a senior vacation center.

Illini Hotel Enterprises took over in 1996, buying the hotel for $1.7 million and spending $1 million to renovate the building, reopening it in 1997 as a hotel on four floors and an assisted living facility on two floors.

In 2005, Kendar Development Corp., Riverpark Grande Development and Darrell Rhea purchased the hotel for $3.5 million from Illini Hotel Enterprises ,wanting to construct 40 upscale condos, while kicking out 105 senior residents. The new housing project would be dubbed Riverpark Grande, but the economy tanked and the project failed.

In 2008, investors, including former county commissioner Joe McClash, wanted to buy the hotel and turn it into a boutique hotel, while then-owners Riverpark Grande Development was trying to line up a hotel owner/operator that wanted to have a hotel comparable to a Ritz-Carlton.

A competing plan at the time by the Promenade project developers aimed to build a five-story senior apartment community on the property. One hotel plan by Riverpark Grande wanted permission to rent the city dock to offer packages to rent boats and watercraft.

Another deal proposed in 2008 by Dunn Hospitality Group failed after it asked for $3.4 million from city government in part to build a parking garage.

City officials OK’d a hotel plan, but Riverpark lost the property in foreclosure from Regions Bank after owing $3.1 million in 2009. The city held a lien against the property and boarded it to prevent deterioration.

That’s when Widewaters Development came into the picture in 2010, acquiring the deed from Regions through a foreclosure sale. In 2011 it received approval and incentives from the city and federal governments worth $3.3 million to renovate the hotel to National Register of Historic Places standards.

Widewaters reached a deal to open the hotel as the Hampton Inn & Suites. Originally billed as a 115-room hotel, planning during the renovation bumped up the total to 119 rooms.

Construction began in January, and doors to the Hampton Inn will open Tuesday.

— Information from the Herald’s archies were used in this report.

 

Sept. 19, 2013

Downtown Bradenton Hampton Inn Holding Jobs Fair

By Charles Schelle, cschelle@bradenton.com

Competition is healthy for 32 available jobs at the new Hampton Inn and Suites-Bradenton Downtown Historic District.

More than 100 people turned out by noon Thursday during the first day of the hotel’s job fair at the Bradenton Municipal Auditorium, said Kelly Ann Dixon, director of sales and marketing for the hotel.

Spurgeon Nisbett, general manager of the Hampton Inn, has been impressed with the job candidates so far. It should be no surprise that personality is a big factor in hiring in the hospitality industry.

“We’re not hiring technical. We’re hiring personality. If someone has a great personality, that’s who we want in the hospitality business,” Nisbett said. “Somebody could tell me, ‘I’m the best in computers.’ That’s OK, but we can train that stuff. I can’t train somebody to smile and to be personable.”

The former “Pink Palace” hotel, 309 10th St. W, is interviewing for a variety of positions, including front desk, room attendants, laundry attendants and maintenance. The jobs come with a standard benefits package, including a retirement plan, medical and dental coverage.

“We’ve had a lot of people who have worked in the hospitality industry and know the industry. The people realize here how important tourism is to the area,” said Dixon.

While folks are clamoring to get a job, the same can be said for people who want to book a room. Corporate and wedding event sales are brisk, showing a promising first quarter at the hotel, Dixon said. Starting Oct. 7, the public can make single-night reservations.

Thanks to event/group bookings, it already looks like opening night, Nov. 19, will be sold out, she said, and more surprisingly it appears most of those guests live in Bradenton. “I’m going to sell out with people living here the first night,” Dixon said. Part of that might be the emotional attachment to the history.

“Everybody has some ownership to this building,” Dixon said. “They watched it go down and they fought for them to keep it and not tear it down, and then they watched it get remodeled and redone. And now that it’s opening, it’s almost like everybody’s baby. I’ve never seen anything like it.” The hotel is undergoing a $15 million renovation by the Syracuse, N.Y.-based Widewaters Group.

The developer hopes to honor the history of the hotel and at the same time achieve a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Widewaters received more than $1 million in incentives and $1.5 million in tax rebates from the city for the renovation of the historic hotel, and broke ground in January. The Hampton Inn will have a nod to its past with a display area of some of the historical accoutrements uncovered in the building, said Damon Kinney, maintenance supervisor.

Brass elevator dials and push buttons, the old mailbox and part of the mail chute and other items have been refurbished and displayed in the lobby, he said. Copper lanterns will likely be used on the west entrance, Kinney said, and the original chandeliers will be used in the colonnade. The wood panels on the ceiling will also be hand-painted during the restoration, Dixon said.

Nisbett knows expectations are high, and Dixon said the community’s passion is obvious.

“I can’t believe the love that everybody has for that building, and it’s contagious,” Dixon said. Job candidates have come from larger hotel properties in Sarasota, while others are looking for their first hospitality job.

Bradenton resident Irene Cohello completed hospitality and tourism classes at the Manatee Technical Institute and is continuing to take marketing classes. The native of Peru hopes the combination of her training, ability to speak four languages and world travels will help her land an event-planning job with the hotel.

“I had the opportunity to travel a lot, and I was also living in Paris, in Europe,” said Cohello, who worked in real estate in Peru. She met her husband in the United States when she was visiting her sister in Florida and calls Bradenton home now.

Roosevelt Stephenson is trying to land a job in grounds-keeping or maintenance after being out of work for about a month. He’s finding temporary jobs, but permanent positions are tough to find, so every day he applies for a job, hoping for a call back.

“If you’re lying down in the house, you’re not finding a job,” Stephenson said. “Every day I get on the bus, and it’s hard.” Management will follow up with top candidates in the coming week, with the goal to start training staff the first week of October, Nisbett said.

“Once construction turns over those floors to us, we have to get in there and start putting the rooms together — that’s the training period for housekeepers,” he said. “Once we get the computers on board, we can make sure everyone understands all the technical aspects.”

Nov. 21, 2013

Is new Bradenton Hampton Inn haunted by ghosts?

BRADENTON, Fla. – The former Manatee River Hotel has had thousands of guests in its 87 years, but some are wondering if a few never checked out.

Yes, Bradenton could have its own haunted hotel. Much of the hotel was gutted during its $21 million renovation to become the Hampton Inn & Suites, to form new rooms and walls. But a new door never stopped a ghost.

The stories can give chills to those who believe, which is why Liz and Ron Reed of the Paranormal Society of Bradenton want to scan the hotel for ghosts and spirits of Bradenton’s past.

“My husband and I are dying to get in there,” Liz Reed said.

The two have every reason to believe entering the Hampton Inn is like entering The Twilight Zone.

“It’s probably more active now that it’s renovated because it has been disturbed and has changed things around,” Liz Reed said. “Sometimes that can make it more active.”

At one time, the hotel at 309 10th Street West was an assisted living center and retirement center, where at least a few people spent their final seconds on earth, but those spirits might not even be the people who roam the halls at night, Reed said.

“It could be someone who loved the hotel, and their spirit decided to return,” she said.

Several recent tales could help support the Reeds’ case. Perhaps the spookiest is one from Bradenton Police Sgt. Tony Cerniglia.

While talking to a security guard contracted to watch over the property during the renovation, the guard told him a tile worker noticed something on the fourth floor.

“The tiler was doing tiling and said he looked down a hallway and saw a white female in a white dress at the end of the hallway. He put it on his cellphone and got a good picture of it,” he said.

But Cerniglia hasn’t seen the photo himself. That’s how these stories usually go – somebody hears it from someone but hasn’t experienced it for themselves.

Reed has heard reports that the seventh floor is the most active for ghost activity. So has Dave Gustafson, director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority, with people alleging that objects seem to magically rearrange when they return, and it probably wasn’t from the housekeeping staff. Gustafson has also heard second-hand stories of accounts of police walking their beat and seeing something strange in the windows while the hotel was boarded up.

Police Chief Michael Radzilowski said he doesn’t recall any calls for service to the hotel through the years for paranormal activity. He hasn’t seen any ghosts, either.

But it’s not seeing the ghosts to detect activity, it’s feeling their presence, Liz Reed said.

The couple are equipped with voice recorders, infrared cameras, laser grids and electromagnetic field detectors to see if there is a spirit among them.

The tales, passed on from generation to generation in Bradenton, say Clark Gable, Babe Ruth and Greta Grabo all stopped in at the Manatee River Hotel. Famous gangster Al Capone supposedly once stayed here, too. He did have a place in St. Petersburg and Miami, and Bradenton might have been the best place to stay the night to and from.

When the hotel was being renovated in the mid-2000s, local investor Darrell Reha was making improvements to the building before he wanted to bring condos to the assisted living home.

During that renovation, the contractor found a gun in the penthouse that appeared to be a .38 special revolver, Cerniglia said.

“I guess it was actually initialed A.C., which stood for Al Capone,” he said. The contractors also found a guest log with Capone’s signature on it, Cerniglia said he was told, but the location of the gun and log book today are unknown. Reha could not be located Wednesday.

A 1992 story about an auction of Capone’s belongings said one of the items available was a glass water pitcher with the initials A.C. on it, so having his initials engraved on his belongings isn’t out of the question.

Gustafson is not a believer in ghosts, but at least one experience challenged his skepticism. During his honeymoon 20 years ago, he stayed in an old slave’s quarters in Charleston, S.C., and woke up in the middle of the night and heard people singing.

Maybe those spirits in transition are here, too, in Bradenton, and haunted hotels could be another segment for tourism.

“I think it’s another opportunity, and I think it’s really cool,” he said.

The hotel staff understands the legends, but until they see proof, the stories are open for interpretation.

For what it’s worth, the hotel was full during its opening night, and Wednesday morning, staff didn’t have any reports of paranormal activity or bumps in the night, says Kelly Ann Dixon, director of sales and marketing for the hotel.

“With its unique and colorful background, there always could be a chance,” Dixon said during a recent evening tour of the top floors.

Dixon said the Reeds are welcome to book a room and use their instruments to satisfy their curiosity.

“We welcome everyone as guests,” she said.

The chance of seeing ghosts already prompted at least one visitor to stay the night. Nick Walsh, 11, was with his grandmother Mary Walsh at the hotel Tuesday, and was part of the first family to check-in. The 11-year-old said one of the reasons he wanted to come to the historic hotel was because of the stories.

“I heard that there’s ghosts,” Nick said.

Brian Long, director of development for the hotel’s operator, Widewaters Hotels, isn’t sure if he should embrace ghost stories at his hotels. Another group wanting to investigate paranormal activity contacted him during the Hampton Inn’s construction, but he politely declined.

“I don’t know if it’s a benefit or a deterrent,” Long said. “To a 3-year-old girl, that could be a deterrent.”

Has he experienced any ghosts?

“I haven’t run into any,” Long said. “And if I would, I might not tell you.”

APRIL 16, 2014

Downtown Bradenton Hampton Inn receives Florida preservation award

Restoration work for the Bradenton Hampton Inn & Suites will be honored by the Florida Trust For Historic Preservation in May. The 88-year-old Manatee River Hotel was transformed by Widewaters Hotels to a Hampton Inn in 2013.

 

April 18, 2013

Bradenton’s ‘Pink Palace’ hotel renovations nears halfway mark (The Bradenton Herald)

By Charles Schelle, The Bradenton HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

April 18–BRADENTON — Manatee County Chamber of Commerce President Bob Bartz has a front row seat to the “Pink Palace” renovations.

Bartz, whose office is across the street, hears regularly from tourists, residents and business people who stop in to ask about the work being done on the historic hotel.

“It’s such a historical, iconic structure that’s been talked about for so many years, that to see it come to fruition now is certainly exciting, and certainly going to add vitality to our downtown area,” Bartz said.

The area is short on hotel rooms, and this will add to the inventory for the already-busy season of events planned, including rowing events along the Riverwalk.

Having another downtown hotel in place with amenities nearby has led to talks with major developers from Chicago, New York and Miami about other downtown projects, says David Gustafson, executive director for the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority. He’s in talks trying to woo three more restaurants downtown.

“They’re not just kicking the tires,” he said. “They’re coming into town making a determination of how they can make it work.”

One of the restaurants could open late this summer, Gustafson said, but he declined to offer any names. He did say the restaurant would be a mid- to high-end eatery.

Existing restaurateurs are also eager for the hotel to open.

“The restaurants downtown are excited that this might help their business, because this hotel won’t have a restaurant in it per se,” Bartz said.

In the coming weeks, the scaffolding will come down on the historically dubbed “Pink Palace” as it continues its transformation into a Hampton Inn & Suites.

Renovation is nearing the halfway point, and as the windows are installed and beige paint helps transform the exterior, the hotel of many names is generating buzz.

“The buzz around the community is incredible about getting the old girl back into order,” said Gustafson.

The 115-room hotel isn’t even suitable yet for tours of the site, and officials have been clamoring to get a peek inside ever since work began Jan. 17. Some people are already trying

to line up dates not waiting for construction to be complete, Gustafson said, although reservations aren’t being accepted yet.

“People are contacting our Convention and Visitors Bureau, Downtown Development Authority and every day people reach out to me and say I want to book a wedding, I want to book an event or conference,” Gustafson said. “To think it’s six months out, but everyone wants to lock in those dates.”

The $15 million hotel renovation aims to revive some of the building’s charm from the 1920s through 1960 when it was the Manatee River Hotel and folks with deep pockets stayed there. The building later became a senior citizens residence called the Riverpark Hotel and closed in 2005.

Today, a sign hangs on the corner showing the building off as the Riverpark Grande.

“I know my DDA board, anytime I say that (“Pink Palace”), they give me a hard time for saying it,” Gustafson said. “We’re all going to have to change their name and we’ll see what name sticks.”

What passersby see at the top will be the hotel’s final color, reverting back to the historic color of the hotel and replacing the pink that many in Bradenton have grown accustomed to over the last 30 to 40 years, Gustafson said. While some would say pink is their favorite color, Gustafson said the new treatment is growing on him.

“A lot of us were thinking we want the pink to come back, but I’m actually falling in love with the color on the walls,” he said. “It makes the color of the blue aqua tiles around the windows jump out now.”

The goal for the contractor, Widewaters Hotels, is to seal up the building before rainy season kicks in, paint from top to bottom, and then move on to the interior improvements, Gustafson said. Inside, detailed woodwork, finishing and intricate paintings will decorate the hotel.

The projected opening date is the end of November or beginning of December, he said.

Widewaters Hotels officials didn’t return messages requesting comment for this report.

“Their marketing people are working toward the date they have and want to be open by the time the Bradenton Blues Fest occurs, which is the first weekend in December,” Gustafson said.

The bluesfest at Riverwalk is designed to bring people right in the heart of Bradenton to stay, party and play. Hotel Officials have been planning all along to build on the success of Riverwalk, as well as the beaches, as they project 50,000 visitors a year will come to stay at the hotel and provide a $2.5 million annual economic impact.

“It’s going to be a major shot in the arm for the City of Bradenton and Manatee County,” Gustafson said.

With each piece of downtown falling into place — Manatee Players, Riverwalk, Hampton Inn, Art Center and planned improvements for the Village of the Arts — excitement is building in Bradenton.

“There seems to be optimism — not just because of the hotel — but because of the Riverwalk, the Manatee Performing Arts Center opening up, and there seems to be a lot of synergy downtown that kind of have people kicking the tires downtown,” Bartz said.

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