Victory for Lake Wales: Historic Walesbilt Hotel Set to Return to City Ownership After Court Ruling

LAKE WALES, Fla. – Lake Wales is set to regain ownership of the historic Walesbilt Hotel, a long-vacant downtown landmark, following a recent court ruling. The city had filed a lawsuit in January 2022 against the property’s owner, Dixie-Walesbilt LLC, alleging false claims made by the company’s manager, Raymond E. Brown, in order to win a contract for renovating the 10-story structure. The city claimed that Brown’s company had made limited progress in restoring the hotel and had not fulfilled its promise to convert it into private residences.

Circuit Judge William D. Sites recently issued an order granting a motion for summary judgment filed by Lake Wales and its Community Redevelopment Agency. The city had requested a partial judgment based on two of the 14 counts in its complaint against Dixie-Walesbilt LLC. These counts alleged that Brown’s company had committed fraud by making false claims about its financial backing and progress on pre-sales of units.

In the motion, the city’s attorney focused on Brown’s claim that a supposed associate, Rajesh Kumar, was the main financial backer of the project. However, it was revealed in depositions that Kumar was never a principal with Dixie-Walesbilt LLC and had not contributed any capital to the company. The city also cited Brown’s testimony in a 2014 lawsuit, wherein he admitted that the company had never pre-sold any of the hotel’s planned units.

Judge Sites based his ruling on testimony from former Lake Wales City Commissioner Terrye Howell, who stated that she would not have approved the redevelopment agreement with Brown’s company in 2010 if she had known the truth about Kumar’s involvement. The judge also considered an affidavit from current Lake Wales City Manager James Slaton, who confirmed that the city would not have approved the agreement had officials known about the false financing claims.

Dixie-Walesbilt’s lawyer, Brent Geohagan, presented 17 affirmative defenses in response to the city’s motion, asserting that the allegations of fraud were statements of opinion and that the relevant statute of limitations had expired. However, Judge Sites found that the defense failed to support these assertions.

The Walesbilt Hotel, which opened in 1927, holds significant historical value and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The city transferred ownership of the building to Brown in 2011, with the expectation that he would renovate it into apartments and retail space. Brown has completed some restoration work on the interior, but the promise of converting the hotel into residential units has not been fulfilled.

The court’s ruling signals a pivotal moment for Lake Wales, which has been working to revitalize its downtown area. The city has a multiyear revitalization plan in place, including a redesigned streetscape on Park Avenue next to the Walesbilt. The future of the hotel under city ownership remains uncertain, but city leaders will discuss the judge’s order at an upcoming meeting.

Lake Wales Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson, also the chair of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, expressed gratitude for the judge’s order and emphasized the need to carefully review it before discussing further details. The court case has undergone a change of judges, with Circuit Judge Jennifer Swensen taking over from Judge Sites.

The Walesbilt Hotel holds a significant place in Lake Wales’ history, with former owners including Florida Gov. John W. Martin and a consortium of Hollywood actors. Despite its previous owners’ prestige, the hotel has remained vacant for decades, a symbol of neglect in the city’s downtown area.

Lake Wales’ pursuit of reclaiming ownership of the Walesbilt Hotel highlights the commitment of the city to protect public interests and ensure the proper restoration of historic landmarks. The expectation is that the ruling will deter dishonest conduct and prevent individuals from profiting through false pretenses.

The restoration and revitalization of the Walesbilt Hotel will be a matter of interest and significance not only for Lake Wales but also for those invested in preserving historical landmarks.