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Commercial Real Estate
Business Observer Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021 2 weeks ago

New season: Work begins on beloved resort

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After several months of delays, a massive redevelopment of the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club is underway.
by: Louis Llovio Commercial Real Estate Editor

After a nearly seven-month delay and with new owners in place, the redevelopment of the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club is back on track.

The plan is for work to begin next year and for the early phases to open in mid- to late 2024.

The massive transformation of this historic and beloved beach resort has been in the works for at least three years, winning the approval from Naples city leaders in 2019. But the plans were put on hold in June, after legal roadblocks went up when an unhappy neighbor filed a lawsuit.

The lawsuit hasn’t gone away, but the property’s new owners, led by The Athens Group, based in Phoenix, are moving forward with the planned work. The Athens Group chief operating officer Jay Newman says demolition of existing buildings will begin early in the year, with construction of the hotel starting toward the end of the first quarter.

Athens bought the property with New York-based MSD Partners in October. Athens is the developer and MSD — a private investment firm established in 1998 exclusively to manage assets of computer and tech titan Michael Dell and his family — provided the capital. The entities paid $362.3 million for the site, Collier County property records show. 

Given the unique nature of the property, it's difficult to compare the sale to any other transaction in the area. The closest is South Seas Island Resort on nearby Captiva Island, which sold earlier this year for an undisclosed amount. But hotel properties across the region have been gaining in sale price, partially due to increased demand from travelers that's boosted occupancy rates and tourism numbers. 

Whatever the reason for the huge price tag, the owners are likely to see a hefty return on their investment, says Kent Schwarz, executive managing director overseeing hotels for Colliers International in Tampa. He says between condo unit sales, fees at the beach club and the hotel, revenue centers are in place for the developers to recoup their investment and profit nicely.  "I think the whole thing is brilliant," he says. "They have a lot going on there."  

And, it’s important to consider there could be a bigger plan in place than what is being discussed publicly.

As the redevelopment at the Naples Beach Club is underway, for example, it will be interesting to see what is happening at the Hamilton Harbor Yacht Club about 10 miles south. MSD Partners bought the 28.4-acre club in September for $16.6 million. The question is, was that purchase a coincidence, a plan to expand holdings in the area or a larger strategy to capitalize on the properties that share ownerships and serve the same clientele?

Time will tell. But it’s hard to imagine Dell making that purchase without a bigger plan in place.

The redevelopment at the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, meanwhile, calls for the property to be transformed into a 125-acre resort and residential beachfront development that will be rechristened the Naples Beach Club. This new entity will include a 216-room hotel operated by the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts and up to 185 luxury condominiums. The plan also calls for a shopping district with retail and restaurants. The Four Seasons hotel, shopping district and first phase of residences — beach side and in a mixed used building — are expected to open in 2024.

The price of the redevelopment was previously pegged at $250 million, but Athens' Newman wouldn’t confirm that number, saying that “as this property is an irreplaceable beachfront site, the cost of the luxury resort will be substantial.” He cites the cost for the “elevated quality” of materials and design, along with amenities being added. In total, Athens officials are promising the revamped Naples Beach Club they’re building will be “a one-of-a-kind luxury lifestyle destination (for) residents and guests.”

As for those who study history, it will be a new chapter in a long story.

That was then…

The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club traces its history back to the 1880s.

The hotel, according to a history on its former website, was built two blocks from the Naples fishing pier and about two miles south of where it now stands. It was named The Naples Hotel.

Like many vacation spots then — and now —it catered to travelers from the Midwest, people looking to escape winter. These were folks who’d arrive in December and head back home in the spring.

Almost 50 years later, in 1929, the first 18-hole golf course in the area was built by Allen Joslin and his wife Lois, an heiress to the Jergens lotion fortune. To compliment his golf course, Allen Joslin bought beachfront property next to the course in order to build a clubhouse he called The Beach Club.

That, it would turn out, would be the first building in what would become The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club.

The hotel and the golf course continued operating separately, sharing space in the town, until 1946 when a retired 56-year old toy maker from Ohio came to town. His name was Henry Watkins Sr. and he bought The Naples Hotel as well as The Beach Club and golf course.

Watkins, with the deed to both properties, set out to build a vacation destination spanning from the golf course to the Gulf of Mexico, the property where the resorts sits on today. The club, golf course and hotel became one — and Watkins’ family wound up running the property for more than 70 years.

The original hotel remained, acting mostly as a dormitory for staff, until it was torn down in the 1970s. Watkins kept adding buildings to meet demand until 1971, when the final building featuring guest rooms was built.

Watkins died at 91 in 1981, having handed the company to his son, Henry Watkins Jr. before his death. His sons, Michael and Henry III, took over in 1989, with Michael taking on the role of president and Henry becoming executive vice president.

Under their watch, the resort underwent a series of additions and improvements designed to “keep a competitive edge without losing the original South Florida charm and grace,” according to the history. This meant spending more than $65 million on improvements beginning in 1998 and building a 75,000-square-foot spa and clubhouse, tennis center and modernizing the Everglades Room.

This is now…

In December, a message from Michael Watkins showed up on the resort’s website.

“Our family,” it read, “has had the privilege and honor of welcoming guests and groups to The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club for more than 74 years...we’ve taken great pride in our family tradition of providing outstanding hospitality for more than 70 years, and we look forward to celebrating our final season with our guests and patrons this winter and spring.” 

The family was selling. The 2021 season would be its last at the helm of the resort their grandfather had founded. The plan was to close in May.  

In 2019, the Naples City Council had approved a revitalization plan including a golf course, restaurants and retail space and a host of other high-end amenities. That same year Athens and MSD contracted to acquire the 319-room Naples Beach Hotel and the surrounding beachfront property.

Everything was put on hold after a lawsuit filed May 27 — just four days after Naples Beach Hotel closed and days before Athens and MSD were expected to close on the property sale. The lawsuit was filed by a nearby resident, Gregory Myers. Myers claimed the revamped resort would interfere with his enjoyment of the land — specifically an easement for streets, avenues and driveways both share.

The case, according to Collier County court records, is ongoing. Neither the lawyers representing the owners nor Myers, representing himself, responded to a request for comment.

But the suit, however, no longer seems to be holding up the project.

On Oct. 18 Athens and MSD announced their purchase of the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club. A couple of weeks later, on the week of Nov. 1, work began on the construction of an access road from U.S. 41, over the center of the golf course, to the staging area near Gulf Shore Boulevard North. The road, Newman says, “will eliminate much of the project’s construction traffic that would have utilized the neighboring streets.”

(This story has been updated to correct the title of Jay Newman, Athens Group's chief operating officer.)

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