Editorial by Tampa Bay Times on September 11, 2014.
The Taoist Tai Chi Society’s newly released plans for the historic Fenway hotel in Dunedin contain good news for local residents who worried the private religious organization would seal off the landmark from the public. The plans not only call for public meeting space inside the 90-year-old Fenway, but also construction of townhomes behind it that will be offered for sale to the public. This is a hopeful sign that the nonprofit wants to be a part of, rather than apart from, the community.
The Taoist Tai Chi Society is an international organization that teaches meditation, wellness and the slow-moving Taoist exercise tai chi. It bought the 5.2-acre Fenway property on the Dunedin waterfront in June for $2.8 million, announcing it would turn the property into its new national headquarters, which is currently in Tallahassee, and an international conference center for its members.
The Tai Chi Society beat out a Pennsylvania development team that had planned to build a boutique hotel, conference center and condos on the Fenway property. Dunedin officials had eagerly anticipated the tax revenue that would flow from that commercial development. City officials initially seemed disappointed that a religious nonprofit would be occupying the property instead, expecting the group would be exempt from paying property taxes. And some residents were concerned about Dunedin’s most treasured historic property ending up in the hands of a little-known religious group.
But last week the group released more detailed plans and revealed the public components, including 27 three-story townhomes to be built around a new pond on the eastern half of the property — townhomes that would generate property tax revenue for the city and county.
In the project’s first phase, the old Fenway would be repaired and restored. It would reopen with 102 guest rooms for its members participating in multi-day Taoist programs, meeting space and 105 parking spaces. An existing building at the corner of Locklie Street and Broadway would be retained during Phase 1 to provide classroom space, but it, along with all other buildings other than the Fenway, would be torn down during Phase 2 in a couple of years, replaced by the townhomes.
Overall, the proposed project is less ambitious than some previous development proposals that had envisioned a high-end resort or condo-hotel. When the society delivered its project packet to the city last week, it included an economic impact analysis by Fishkind & Associates of Orlando. Fishkind determined that a traditional hotel was not likely to be successful in the Dunedin market based on current trends and advised that the best use of the Fenway was institutional. The study estimated the annual economic impact of the completed project at $2.7 million.
The society has hired a local development team and has asked the City Commission to allow negotiations on a development agreement to begin. The development agreement is the tool the city can use to resolve any issues it has with the proposal and address any concerns expressed by neighbors. The Fenway property is bordered on three sides by single-family homes, and some of those residents aggressively opposed previous development proposals.
Neighbors should ask lots of questions, but keep an open mind. After a decade of watching the empty Fenway and its associated buildings grow more dilapidated and the grounds more unkempt, they may find the prospect of a religious conference center and townhome community downright appealing.