New owner promises finest Keys resort

KEY LARGO — A new resort will be opening in Key Largo in 2017 on the bayfront spot of the current Point of View RV Resort at 99060 Overseas Highway. Jerry Johnson, the developer who purchased the property in December for $11.2 million, has high ambitions for it.

“We intend to build a resort that will not only be the finest in the Florida Keys, but will rival some of the greatest hotels in the world,” he said in a press release.

Johnson is the founder and owner of Johnson Resort Properties, an affiliate of Cheeca Holdings, which owned and operated Cheeca Lodge Spa in Islamorada from 2003 to 2011. Under Johnson’s stewardship, the upscale resort attained a high-gloss status, making Travel + Leisure’s “500 Greatest Hotels in the World” list. It was sold in 2011 for $100 million.

Since selling Cheeca Lodge, Johnson told the Free Press that he traveled the world and visited fine boutique hotels.

“I enjoyed seeing what’s new and what’s not so new, what people like,” he said during a phone interview last Thursday. “I plan on bringing all that to this property.”

Johnson has 30 years of experience in developing, owning and operating hotels, including properties where he is based in Wyoming: the Rustic Inn at Jackson Hole and the Lodge at Jackson Hole. But he has also developed another lodging in the Florida Keys, the Inn at Key West.

“I enjoy the Keys,” he said. “I’ve done Key West and Islamorada. It’s time to try Key Largo.”

When asked why he enjoys the Keys, he mentioned the watersports and the fishing. But as a developer, coming here is simply good for business.

“It makes for a great hotel business when you don’t have the risk of an area being overbuilt,” he said in reference to the island chain’s strict development laws. “But yet you still have a need for new product, which there is very little of in the Keys.”

To make his “new product” rival the best in the world, he plans on capitalizing on the water views: 60 to 70 percent of the planned 138 rooms will be on the water. “This site is all about sunsets,” he said.

Johnson said he was inspired by sunset photos on the Facebook page of the current Point of View residents, who he said posted “phenomenal” pictures.

Most rooms will be 800 square feet and have private outdoor plunge pools. The resort will also feature a world-class spa, and indoor and outdoor dining venues.

He will also focus on personal service.

“At the end of the day, it’s the service,” he said. “The property will have an owner presence. The fact of the matter is, I was there at Cheeca Lodge and I would talk to the guests.”

He explained that he is a hands-on developer who designs, builds and operates the properties, and he plans on being even more of a presence at the new property, which as of yet does not have a name.

Johnson is represented locally by agent Jim Saunders, who built Point of View through his company, the Upper Keys-based BayView Homes. The 11.7-acre resort was owned by Northstar Resort Enterprises and has been open since March 2013.

Northstar had already nailed down a development agreement with Monroe County in 2011 that gave the company permission to build a 138-room hotel on the property up until the year 2021.

In a move that may make the permitting and construction process move much faster, Cheeca Holdings will do only small adjustments on the site, rather than change its density plan. To that end, Saunders applied for a “minor deviation” with the county on Feb. 2.

Saunders anticipates that the county will approve the minor deviation application at the beginning of April.

“Once approved, Cheeca Holdings will submit a building permit plan for approval. Then construction approvals shouldn’t take long,” Saunders said.

Mayté Santamaria, senior director for the county’s planning and environmental resources department, confirmed to the Free Press that Cheeca Holdings’ minor deviation application is currently being reviewed and gave an even quicker time for approval.

“My guestimate is approximately 45 days for the processing of this application,” she said.

Johnson said that Point of View will operate through the summer, and he plans to start construction in September. The current goal is to open the resort in the third quarter of 2017, he said.

For those who fear that yet another high-end property will change the quirky, casual sensibility of the Florida Keys, Johnson said he wants to avoid that. He explained that many developers try to bring South Beach to the Keys, but he won’t be doing that.

“The Keys are a more casual environment that often gets lost in translation,” he said. “At the Cheeca Lodge, we had a phrase we used way back when: ‘barefoot elegance.’ It’s going to be all those things and be a luxury property.”