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George Heaton gives up on south island hotel project


George Heaton’s ambitious plan to build a 10-story, 160-room hotel, 45 condos and nine cottages on 12 acres at the far southern end of the barrier island is dead after he terminated a contract to buy the land.

The developer, who built the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa on Ocean Drive and is developing a new subdivision in Riomar, told 32963 he had hoped to close on the property at 2600 A1A in St. Lucie County this past fall to build the 170,000-square-foot, $70 million project.

But that did not happen.

The listing broker for the property, Bob Lowe, said Heaton no longer has a contract for the prime oceanfront land.

“I heard the plan was too expensive to build. He does not have a contract. Anybody can come in and buy the land,” Lowe said last week.

Heaton confirmed the plan as it was proposed is dead because of the economics.  "We probably over-designed the project,” he said.

Lowe represents landowner Phil Ruffin, a Las Vegas billionaire who owns the Treasure Island hotel and casino on the Las Vegas Strip. The St. Lucie property sold at the height of the real estate boom for $17.9 million, but lost value in the downturn. Ruffin bought it for $6 million in 2013, with plans to develop a resort himself.

Lowe worked with the county to get the property rezoned to CR, commercial resort, to accommodate the hotel and condo project Ruffin had in mind.

Ruffin subsequently changed his mind, but that zoning, along with the tract’s spectacular location on the ocean near the Fort Pierce Inlet – which is hugely popular with sport fishermen and other boaters – was part of the draw for Heaton when he sought to buy the land for his resort concept.

Besides the 160-room hotel, condos and beachfront cottages, his plan called for a spa and fitness center, a 4,000-square-foot restaurant in the hotel along with a free-standing 5,000-square-foot restaurant, a 5,000-square-foot specialty retail store fronting on A1A, and a large lawn event area between the beach and hotel for weddings, reunions and corporate events.

He had selected an architect – Delray Beach-based Randall Stofft, designer of the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa – and planned to sell the 1,000-square-foot condos for around $500,000 while offering the nine deluxe cottages for $1.8 million to $2.5 million each.

The county supported Heaton’s plan, which diverged somewhat from what Ruffin had in mind, and was willing to make modifications to the zoning code to accommodate him, but Leslie Olson, St. Lucie County planning and development services director, said the application Heaton submitted in mid-July has been removed from the county Planning and Zoning Commission agenda at Heaton’s request.

Now, Lowe’s real estate sign stands on the land, informing passersby that commercial, hotel and condo uses are allowed on the property, which is located across the road from a Cumberland Farms convenience store where A1A makes a 90-degree bend, its north-south route interrupted by the Fort Pierce Inlet.

Lowe said that even though Heaton’s hotel plan is off the table, the possibility of a resort with commercial and condo use is still in play and a continuance of the land’s conceptual resort use will be heard at a St. Lucie County planning meeting on Feb. 16.

“I kept the concept alive – I have kept it moving along to save somebody a lot of money and time,” the broker said.

Lowe, who has worked with Ruffin for more than 25 years, said he is talking with two interested parties about the property, which he hopes to sell for around $15 million.