It looks like a ghost town now.
The once glorious Colony Beach and Tennis Club grounds are deserted except for heavy equipment dismantling the ruins of five commercial buildings this week.
Under the watchful eyes of a field supervisor from ADS Environmental Services of Tampa, the heavy metal teeth of a large excavator tore chunk after chunk out of a condemned commercial building Wednesday at the defunct Colony Beach and Tennis Resort, 6020 Gulf of Mexico Drive, Longboat Key.
Then it moved onto the next doomed structure and began to demolish it, too. Truckload after truckload of debris was hauled from the property in a near-continuous procession during the five-day project begun Monday, Aug. 15
By Friday, most of the rubble was to be gone and the grounds cleared for an eventual $1 billion redevelopment of the roughly 18-acre property.
Sweating in the shade in 90-degree-plus heat while watching the buildings come down, field supervisor Chris Odum of ADS said he was satisfied everything was coming off smoothly.
“They’re doing it right,” he said. “They’re keeping it wet and trucking it right out.”
Odum eyed a worker hosing down the teeth of the excavator as it ripped into bite after bite of a resort service building. He said the worker was providing an environmental service.
“Hosing it down holds down the dust and any potential harmful substances such as asbestos,” Odum said.
The Longboat Key Planning Zoning and Building Department issued permits Aug. 11 for demolition of the five buildings closest to Gulf of Mexico Drive. Within four days, work had begun.
Alaina Ray, director of the Longboat PZBD, said the buildings had begun to collapse after six years of disuse. Former uses included a spa, small conference center, housekeeping, maintenance and laundry.
Years of neglect are all too evident throughout the grounds surrounding the demolition area.
Holes gaped in wooden walkways that used to connect luxury condos. Most condo stairway entrances are wrapped in metal fencing in a flimsy effort to restrict access.
Wooden fencing framing the unstable walkways was down in several places.
The front door to the now-moldy and dank restaurant gaped open as a plywood covering had given way to the elements or intruders. A possible burglary attempt was reported during the demolition week by the grounds supervisor although no losses were reported.
A red sign reading “wrong way” lay nearly covered with weeds on the path to the beach.
The skeletal remains of a tiki hut stood fenced in away from the Longboat Key beachfront leading to the inviting Gulf of Mexico waters - the proximity of the white sands key to the still formidable intrinsic value of this rundown property. Few grayed and bleached-out fronds remained of those once crowning the hut.
All property could be razed within nine months.
Then the ghost town could rise from the dead, anchored by a five-star hotel, according to Unicorp National Developments President Chuck Whittall. He has already outlined plans for a 180-unit condominium, 180-room hotel with timeshares at the property and saltwater swimming pools populated with tropical fish.
Unicorp has been talking with “all the major” five-star hotel operators to anchor the resort, according to Whittall, including Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotel and Resort; Stamford, Conn.-based St. Regis Hotels and Resorts; Dallas-based Rosewood Hotels and Resorts; and Mill Valley, Calif.-based Auberge Resorts and Hotels among others.
Redevelopment will not happen so quickly though, Ray said. Residents still must approve the requested additional density, then Unicorp must apply for a comprehensive plan amendment and rezone to establish a planned unit development, said Ray.
“You’re looking at a couple of years,” Ray has estimated as a timeline for the process.
Unicorp wants an extension of the property’s 237 grandfathered tourism units through June 30, 2018, and a referendum to allow the additional residential density in conjunction with the hotel. The Town Commission has yet to approve the request for a referendum.
By Oct. 1, Whittall said he hopes to have at least 75 percent of unit owners sign a development agreement absolving all litigation surrounding the property and buying out owner interests. He said he is optimistic it will happen soon after receiving the unanimous vote from the board to move forward on the development agreement.
Then, and only then, can life return to this ghost town.