With the sound of pounding surf just over the dune a clattering earthmover nearby and drips of rain as a backdrop Monday, Chuck Whittall dispelled a notion that the morning groundbreaking at 1620 Gulf of Mexico Drive was simply a ceremonial social occasion.
The heavy machines in the background were actually on the job. Unicorp National Developments Inc. received its first permit to begin ground preparations on the 17.6-acre beachfront site the week previous.
In short, work on the Residences at the St. Regis Longboat Key is underway, said Whittall, the CEO of Unicorp to the gathered crowd of family, friends, town officials, real estate figures and community leaders.
Speakers at the invitation-only groundbreaking event included Mayor Ken Schneier, U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, Michael Saunders & Co. CEO Michael Saunders and Katie Moulton Klauber, daughter of legendary hotelier Dr. Murray "Murf" Klauber, owner of the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort.
The project, worth about $800 million, is expected to conclude in 2024. Whittall told the invited guests that about a year from now, the roof should be completed on the first building.
Town of Longboat Key Commissioners gave their final OK to the site plan and a planned-unit development application last week in a special meeting. The approval brought to a close nearly a decade of angst prompted by the closure of the Colony on the property and a string of legal and procedural slowdowns that set back the eventual groundbreaking by years.
"This is going to be the town center for Longboat Key,'' Whittall said. "This is where kids are going to have weddings on the beach. This is where retirement parties, Sunday brunches, festivals, gatherings are going to happen."
Unicorp plans to develop 69 condo units and 166 hotel units along with restaurants and other public facilities, many of them open to the public. It's been nearly three years since the buildings and other structures of the Colony resort were torn down on the land.
"I'm a real estate guy,'' Whittall said. "I just wanted to buy the land to build a hotel. And then I learned about the history of it and came to appreciate the history of it and the memories that were made here. And so this isn't really the end. It's the beginning of a new place. The memories are going to be made. It's going to be a great place. We're going to have this beach named as the number one beach in America, because we're going to have the right hotel on the property.''
Moulton, who was on hand with her brother Michael Klauber, congratulated Whittall on his achievement.
"Thank you from all of our family, for your tenacity, as it has been said already, shepherding this exciting new life for this extraordinary property that holds so many marvelous memories, '' she said.