After an isolating 17-month delay, the Sunseeker Resort Charlotte Harbor is starting up again.
Allegiant Travel executive John Redmond fittingly brought a lot of Vegas with him on a recent trip to Southwest Florida.
For one, Redmond, president of the Las Vegas-based low-cost airline pioneer and former CEO of MGM Grand Resorts, is at the helm of a big gamble: that travelers from some 50 Allegiant destinations nationwide will flock to the middle of Charlotte County, in one of most underdeveloped areas on Florida’s west coast, to rent suites and hotel rooms in an enclosed luxury resort with top-shelf amenities. The affable Redmond also delivered some Vegas pizzazz with him, spicing up his presentation by using “best ever, unbelievable and amazing” often to describe the $510 million project, Sunseeker Resort Charlotte Harbor.
‘We’ve never given up on this project. We’ve been working day and night on this and you haven’t seen anything until you have seen this project.’ John Redmond, Sunseeker Resort Charlotte Harbor
Redmond’s early August trip also had a big-time, chips-are-in purpose. He gave some details on Allegiant’s decision to restart construction of Sunseeker, after the pandemic forced the company to shut down for 17 months. “It’s been some crazy times,” Redmond says, “but we’ve never given up on this project. We’ve been working day and night on this and you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen this project.”
At a press event Aug. 3 and then in an Aug. 5 call with investors, Redmond and other Allegiant executives disclosed a slew of new Sunseeker details, including the cost of the project and its financing; the thought process behind postponing the project and not selling it; and a timeline for construction moving forward. “We believe Sunseeker will be another differentiator for Allegiant,” CFO Greg Anderson said on the call. “It’s a similar direct-to-consumer approach that complements our ecosystem of travel nicely.”
Sunseeker isn’t only a major undertaking for the publicly traded airline, which posted $1.19 billion in revenue in the past 12 months. It’s also a significant step for Charlotte County — often overlooked in large-scale hospitality developments, with projects instead going north, to Sarasota-Bradenton or south, to Fort Myers. The project, more than one million square feet in total, has 700 to 800 employees on the construction side, and the resort plans to have at least 1,150 employees. At that payroll size, says Redmond, it would make Sunseeker the third-largest employer in the county, behind Bayfront Health in Port Charlotte and Walmart. And at $510 million, it’s one of the largest projects, of any kind, in decades in the area. Suffolk Construction is the project manager and Orlando-based L2 Studios leads the design team.
Sunseeker dates back to early 2017, when airline officials scouted sites in Punta Gorda. The fishing village, population about 18,000, is within a two-hour driving distance of four airports that shuttle millions of passengers a year into the Sunshine State from points Northeast and Midwest. That was the initial driver for Sunseeker, airline officials say, in the ultimate build it and they will come dynamic, especially given Allegiant’s captive audience via its planes.
Allegiant passenger tallies from airports in those areas — Fort Myers, Punta Gorda, Sarasota-Bradenton and St. Pete-Clearwater — have only exploded since then, officials point out on the investor’s call. The airline will likely surpass two million passengers in and out of Punta Gorda alone by 2022, says Redmond. And its biggest airports in terms of passengers coming out of the pandemic are Southwest Florida International in Fort Myers and Sarasota-Bradenton International. Redmond calls the airport traffic data validation for “why we did the resort here in the first place.”
Allegiant paid around $35 million for the 24-acre site for Sunseeker in 2017. By March 2020, construction was about one-third done with phase one; the final project is planned to include 785 total keys broken down between 512 hotel rooms and a combination of 273 one, two and three-bedroom extended-stay suites. “The suites are like nothing else ever built in the United States I’m aware off,” says Redmond, with features that include Wolf ovens, Sub-zero refrigerators and full-size washers and dryers.
And there’s more. Sunseeker plans include 19 restaurants — all original concepts created by Allegiant’s food and beverage team. There are no chains. One concept, discussed on the investor call, is Allegiant Stadium Sports Bar, a play on the name of the NFL Stadium the airline sponsors in Vegas. “When people go on vacation they don’t want to go to restaurants they have at home,” Redmond says. “You’ll never find a resort anywhere with that many original restaurants.”
Other amenities include a rooftop pool, a second pool, a potential 200-slip marina and a 55,000-square-foot conference room and events center. At the media event Redmond asked visitors to imagine a bride overlooking the vista from the events center. “No one has a ballroom with water views like this,” Redmond says. “It just doesn’t exist.”
Pre-pandemic Allegiant had partnered with San Francisco-based investment giant TPG Sixth Street Partners on a financing deal that started out at $175 million. Redmond says the airline has since unraveled that agreement, and, more recently, signed a non-binding term sheet for $350 million in financing with a different partner. The identity of the latest partner, what Redmond calls a “big, huge, well-capitalized entity,” is undergoing final negotiations and hasn’t been publicly disclosed. Allegiant has spent $160 million so far on the project.
The decision to postpone — not cancel, not sell — Sunseeker and wait out the pandemic was made after substantial deliberations among the executive team, officials say. One key toward persevering, officials say, despite the carrying costs, is the value of the project would be hindered if it sold it unfinished. (And persevering included maintaining the six cranes that tower over the road and project, humongous hoists that stood motionless for 17 months. Asked at the press event how he could do that , Redmond quipped: “You can keep them if you write a big check every month. I won’t tell you how much it is, but it’s ugly times six.”)
Depending on supply chain and other issues, construction in earnest is expected to begin within weeks, and is anticipated to be complete in 18 to 24 months. The resort could be open and operational by late 2022 or early 2023. "Very soon, you'll see spinning cranes and construction crews in action again,” Redmond says, “working to finish what will be an incredible, integrated resort experience.”