BRADENTON -- Despite the chilly temperatures and strong winds, the long-awaited groundbreaking ceremony for the $15 million renovation of "The Pink Palace" in Bradenton was embraced with cheers and smiles on Thursday.
Among the dozens of city officials and business leaders and community members in attendance were former employees at the Manatee River Front Hotel, like Jim and Arline Smyth, the Massachusetts couple who worked and met at the hotel in 1947, and Connie Greer-Stewart, the Ohio native who worked at the hotel for eight years in the 1950s.
The 1920s-era downtown hotel, at 309 10th St. W., was purchased by Widewaters Bradenton, LLC and will reopen as a Hampton Inn and Suites in December, featuring 115 rooms which will include king- and queen-sized suites, along with traditional rooms.
"This project has been a long time coming," said Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston. "It's been one of those things that we have worked on and never gave up. It could have been a whole lot easier to just sell this piece of property and let somebody tear it down and build something else, but I think its worth it."
Bob Spoto, vice president of hotel operations for Widewaters, said the hotel will employ a staff of 40 and include amenities such as a pool, fitness center, business center and meeting and banquet spaces.
"This project presents the results of a true public, private partnership," Spoto said. "Without the hard work and commitment of the Bradenton DDA, the City of Bradenton, Manatee County, this project could not have happened. This projects represents what can get accomplished when the public and private sector work together towards a common goal."
The new Hampton Inn will retain some of the hotel's historic features.
Over the last few weeks, Tampa-based Wood Window Makeover.com has been reinstalling the hotel's restored windows and wood frames. Half of the original windows, made from hand-blown glass, remain intact, but several, either cracked or broken entirely, were replaced over time. There are more than 300 window sashes at the historic hotel, with five to six in each window unit. As for the original wood window frames beyond repair, the company was able to re-create the exact style for the remodeling. The company will also revitalize the leaded glass on the former lobby, which offers a store-front, industrial appeal.
Even the original tile of the hotel lobby floor, which was previously covered by carpet, will be restored.
"I can't stop smiling," Poston said to the crowd. "This is great stuff."
The hotel closed in the late 1960s and reopened as a senior citizens residence renamed the Riverpark Hotel, which closed in 2005. The building has remained vacant since then. The hotel was nicknamed the Pink Palace because of its exterior color. Though only portions of the building has been renovated, the new beige color is quite evident.
Stewart, 76, who now lives in Gainesville, drove down Thursday with her husband to peek inside the hotel. She said the hotel was the crown jewel of the city at the time of her employment.
"That used to be my office right there," she said while pointing to a hole in the second floor. "It used to be a barber shop."
Poston recognized the Smyths at the ceremony and dubbed them honorary ambassadors to the City of Bradenton. The couple, who now live in Englewood and recently celebrated their 65th anniversary, donned construction hats, picked up shovels and tossed dirt along with city officials. Poston even handed them keys to the city.
Though its been decades since they saw the inside of the hotel, the Smyths decided to postpone a tour for another day.
"I'll come back later," Arline Smyth said. "When there's less traffic."
Nick Williams, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams