|By Eve Samples, The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Dec. 14, 2005 - South Florida billionaire H. Wayne Huizenga's empire is establishing yet another outpost on the Treasure Coast, this time at the hurricane-ravaged Holiday Inn Oceanside on Hutchinson Island.
An affiliate of Fort Lauderdale-based Huizenga Holdings bought the 176-room beachfront hotel last month from two Oklahoma families who owned it for decades, and the firm intends to keep a hotel on the Jensen Beach site, a company official said Tuesday.
Neither party would reveal what HII LLC paid in the confidential deal, but Martin County property records show the 3-acre parcel is assessed at $5.4 million.
The Huizengas have been in the market for hotels since late last year, when they sold Boca Resorts Inc., the parent company of the Boca Raton Resort and Club, said Richard Handley, vice president and general counsel for Huizenga Holdings.
The new owners intend to repair the damaged hotel or build a new one, but Handley said he didn't know how soon work might start.
The deal is the latest in a series of high-dollar real estate investments the Huizengas have made on the Treasure Coast during the past two years. Another Huizenga firm, The H Group, bought the 57-acre Jensen Beach estate of the World War II-era movie star Frances Langford Stuart in early November. That firm and HII LLC are led by Wayne Huizenga Jr., son of the elder Huizenga, who owns the Miami Dolphins.
"We do love the area. The Huizenga family has been up there for quite some time," Handley said, referring to the family's private resort in Palm City. "Obviously, the area is growing."
Nick Duncan, vice president of Oklahoma City-based Hutchinson Island Inn Inc., which sold the property, said a confidentiality agreement prohibited him from talking about the deal. But he spoke Monday of his childhood visits to the hotel, which his father, J. Walter Duncan Jr., and a business partner built in 1973 along with the nearby Green Turtle Cove condominiums.
The elder Duncan, now 86, and partner Joseph I. O'Neill liked Martin County primarily because of its sportfishing, Nick Duncan said.
"There wasn't a whole lot on Hutchinson Island at the time other than that hotel, and Jensen Beach's character was different," he recalled. "It was a great spot, and our family really enjoyed it."
The Holiday Inn has been closed since Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne nearly gutted it in September 2004, and Duncan said his firm sold it as is.
Bill Pullen, former operations director and general manager at the Holiday Inn, said the former owners spent months weighing their options for the damaged property.
"And also they were waiting to get their insurance settled because that took almost a year," said the longtime hotelier, who retired in November after a 30-year career on the Treasure Coast.
One hundred employees worked at the Holiday Inn Oceanside when it closed after the hurricanes, and Pullen said some have had trouble finding similar work in the area's hurricane-damaged hospitality industry.
Private property appraisers have been calling Martin County planner Clyde Dulin in recent weeks, asking what can be built on the Holiday Inn Oceanside site. He's told them that most of the property is zoned for commercial development, though a small tennis-court area could accommodate up to 2 homes an acre.
If the Huizengas opt to demolish the Holiday Inn and rebuild, county rules would allow only about 60 hotel rooms. Repairing the existing 176-room building might make more economic sense, Dulin said.
Handley said he could not comment on the company's plans, but he said the Huizengas don't intend to sell the site. They're looking to return to the hotel business, he said.
"It has some things that we like," he said. "It has recurring revenue. It's a business that we know something about."
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