BRADENTON -- 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 Florida 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 St. W. 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 a slave's quarters in Charleston, S.C., and woke up in the middle of the night and heard chains and 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."
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.