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His own private island

The owner of Clearwater-based Cay Clubs Resorts & Marinas hopes to lure visitors to his new investment in the Bahamas.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
Published March 7, 2006

In his company's nine-seater turbo-prop, Dave Clark circled the boomerang-shaped island at the northern extremity of the Bahamas, a former haunt of Ponce De Leon, Confederate blockade runners and president Richard M. Nixon.

Walker's Cay was for sale. And, at $20-million, the asking price was no steal after hurricanes Frances and Jeanne knocked out the island's only excuse for an economy, its marina and hotel.

But like the thousands of fishermen who had made the journey before him to the Abaco archipelago, Clark saw something precious in the coral rich waters teeming with shark, tuna and barracuda.

"They've run out of affordable waterfront real estate in Florida," said Clark, chief executive and owner of Clearwater-based Cay Clubs Resorts & Marinas.

"To be involved in a different country: We'd never even considered that. But the Bahamas are becoming more mainstream now."

In a deal with the Abplanalps, the wealthy New York family whose patriarch invented aerosol valves, Clark is buying the 69-acre island, washed by the Gulf Stream about 100 miles off the coast of Florida.

As purchaser, he gets not just the island but everything on it.

About 4,000 feet long, Walker's Cay comes with the defunct hotel and harbor, a private airport, a white-washed church and a diesel-fueled power plant.

Its year-round population of about 20 consists of Bahamian caretakers, constables and customs clerks. In its prime, the 70 or so hotel rooms could hold a couple hundreds tourists.

Clark plans a first-class international resort he'll call the Walker's Cay Club. He'll ask the Bahamian government for the right to build 200 to 400 townhomes, hotel rooms, condominiums and cottages.

Save the church, a restaurant and a few marina landmarks, Clark's company will retain few buildings on the island. New construction will be low-rise and trimmed in West Indian colonial vernacular.

Clark operates ritzy Cay Clubs in Clearwater, Sarasota and the Florida Keys. The Clearwater project, in the middle of an expansion, will boast up to 1,500 condos and hotel rooms.

But he wants to avoid too much flash and glitter on Walker's Cay, in keeping with the angling atmosphere.

The waters around the island are known as one of the planet's hottest sport fishing spots, many of its catches setting world records. Divers enjoy visits to nearby Shark Canyon and Spiral Cavern Reef.

A fishing show called Walker's Cay Chronicles is the ESPN network's highest-rated outdoors program.

"We're not going to turn it into something it's not," said Clark, a 47-year-old former accountant who now deals in hundreds of millions worth of development. "We're going to try to keep the fishing feel.. It's not going to be an Atlantis."

Walker's Cay's history includes brushes with British Buccaneers, Prohibition-era rum runners and Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon en route to seek Florida's Fountain of Youth.

Robert Abplanalp, the Swiss immigrant's son who created the aerosol industry after World War II, bought the island in the 1950s. Abplanalp's Precision Valve Corp. turns out about four-billion aerosol valves a year.

His wealth and Republican Party connections led to a friendship with Nixon. The nation's 37th president vacationed on the island in the '60s and '70s.

But after the senior Abplanalp's death in 2003, his heirs decided to shed some of the family's Bahamian real estate.

Clark's company expects to close on the property in June. Until then, the purchase price remains confidential. It could spend five to 10 years developing the resort, but in the short term will put the restaurant, airstrip and marina in working order.

Many employees will likely come from among the 600 residents of Grand Cay, two miles across the shallows from Walker's Cay.

"It's just an incredible place," Clark said, hoping fisherman and boaters share his enthusiasm enough to pay for the pleasure. "It's so close to the United States, but remote enough not to be over-fished."

-- James Thorner can be reached at 813 226-3313 or thorner@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 7, 2006, 19:04:02]

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