It was a “no,” but not a “hard no.”
On April 19, Marathon’s Planning Board voted down a hotel project proposed for Crawl Key between Marathon and Grassy Key. For the board, it was a first look at a very detailed, very upscale project called Valhalla Resort, put forward by Johnny Morris Signature Resorts. Morris is the founder of Bass Pro Shops, which also owns Cabela’s sporting stores.
Although the board voted 4-1 to deny the project (see opposite page), some of the board members were nevertheless impressed with the project.
“It’s a magnificent project,” said Planning Board member Mike Leonard. “I love this project, it’s like putting Palm Island Resort at Valhalla.”
Planning Board member Matt Sexton agreed. “It’s a stunning project,” said Sexton.
The development has been in the works for more than 15 years. Property records show that Floridian Holdings LLC bought up most of the properties where the resort is planned in 2005. At the time, there were a handful of houses accessible by Banana Boulevard off Overseas Highway. Now only one of those parcels is privately owned by someone else. Those homeowners spoke in favor of the project on April 19, with the provision that they would be able to access their property conveniently.
The proposed layout of Valhalla Resort has operations clustered near U.S.1 — the check-in desk as well as housing for services like laundry and delivery. That is also where guests would park vehicles — the rest of the resort would be traversed by golf carts and pedestrians. Currently, that land is designated as a conservation area and is the main concern of the planning board (see opposite page).
Most of the resort would be clustered on the acreage closest to the ocean on land that is already properly zoned. That includes the former Valhalla motel on the tip of Ocean Drive, and Valhalla Island — the two areas are bisected by a canal.
In all, developers are proposing to build a 110 unit resort. Of those, 29 are standard hotel rooms in the proposed lodge, and the rest are split between 50 villas, cottages and homes. The resort has eight different stand-alone unit configurations ranging from studios with 379 square feet of interior space to two-story homes with four bedrooms and four baths of 3,700 square feet. All of the models have at least one porch and most have an outside shower, while most have both aft and forward decks, making the unit’s footprint roughly twice as large. The different models are scattered throughout the resort, so as not to have clusters of large homes stacked together, but a range of options side by side.
The design was presented by Nunzio Marc Desantis Architects of Dallas, Texas. (There is no apparent relationship between the architectural firm and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.)
The resort plans call for a 12,000-square-foot spa that includes retail space, a hair salon, jacuzzi, steam rooms, saunas and “cold pools.” There is also a women’s locker room and men’s lounge. The one-story building is a courtyard design, with a long pool in the center.
The proposed lodge is three stories tall with 29 rooms. It’s a 30,000-square-foot space, which also includes a 1,000-square-foot service yard.
In addition, there’s a plan for a fitness building to occupy 3,400 square feet with space for free weights and cardio. The developer has made room for 163 parking spaces, which are required by the city.
The proposed resort buildings meet the height requirements in the Florida Keys Area of Critical Concern, except the lodge. As designed, it measures 54 feet tall, although the added height only encompasses architectural design features and can be waived by the order of the city manager.
As with any new development in the City of Marathon, the resort must provide workforce housing that equals 20 percent of the square footage devoted to hotel rooms and cottages. The developer has more than 8,000 square feet of workforce housing that must be increased by more than 5,000 square feet to meet the City of Marathon requirements.
In the middle swath of acreage (60 acres, total), the wetland would be left largely alone, although the developer proposes to build some raised boardwalks.
The resort appears to have most of the transient rental unit (hotel room) building rights, but not all. Neither approval by the planning board or the Marathon City Council guarantees those rights and the developer must buy them on the open market.
Johnny Morris founded Bass Pro in 1971 in Springfield, Missouri. Currently, the company’s holdings include Bass Pro Shops and its flagship shop known as Outdoor World. In 2017, Bass Pro bought Cabela’s, another outdoor retailer, for $5.5 billion. Forbes estimates Morris’ net worth at about $4.1 billion. There are about 17o retail shops — including Bass Pro shops and Cabela’s — in the U.S. and Canada.
Bass Pro’s holdings also include two resorts and a nature preservation area, also in Missouri. Big Cedar Lodge and the Lodge at Top of the Rock were built within the past decade. Bass Pro Shops also owns White River Marine Group, which manufactures and distributes boats under nine brand names, including Mako, which is popular in Florida. Bass Pro also owns the Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, where guests pay admission to enjoy daily adventures.
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