Promises for Innisbrook kept

One course has been improved. Next up: a deluxe spa, gym, tennis upgrades and more.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE, Times Staff Writer
Published November 25, 2007

PALM HARBOR - When billionaire Sheila Crump Johnson rolled into town in July and bought the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, she promised residents major changes.

Everyone at the news conference smiled and applauded the $35-million sale. Golf-loving condo owners crowded around to shake her hand and munched on the gigantic shrimp being served.

Then they waited to see what, if anything, would happen at the long-stagnant resort.

This month, Johnson came back. And by the time she arrived, Innisbrook homeowners were actually seeing results.

During the past 90 days, $1.7-million in renovations have been completed on one of the resort's four golf courses. The Island Course was overseeded to make the turf more lush and lengthened to 7,310 yards, with a par of 71. New cart paths were laid, and the course got new signs, bunkers, irrigation, trees and landscaping.

"This is very refreshing and quite an exciting time," said Richard Ferreira, 67, one of Innisbrook's original developers in 1970 and now a resident of the resort. "We've gone through some tough times over the past few years. I'm just excited."

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Johnson made her fortune as the cofounder of Black Entertainment Television. She and her first husband, Robert, sold the network in 2000 for $3-billion.

Since then, however, Johnson's business interests have grown, and she has acquired ownership stakes or run franchises in the NBA, NHL and WNBA. Her companies also have owned or developed resorts in South Carolina and Virginia.

"When she promises she's going to do something, she really is serious about it," said Prem Devadas, president of Salamander Hospitality, Johnson's company, which owns Innisbrook.

The new ownership, Devadas said, is focused on trying to make changes at Innisbrook quickly but also in a way that enhances quality.

That would be welcome, considering how the 1,000-acre resort has struggled in recent years. From 1999 to 2004, for example, Innisbrook piled up $53-million in losses.

A previous owner was saddled with millions in debt. Then there was the $1-million property tax dispute and a lawsuit involving a developer who wanted to build condominiums on a 39-acre parcel. Innisbrook's relationship with the Westin hotel chain ended before Johnson bought the property.

When Johnson was in town a few weeks ago, she held a party for the resort's 1,700 members and continued to state her commitment to Innisbrook.

Ferreira, the developer turned resort resident, was impressed.

"On a personal basis, she's just a warm person, easy to talk to," he said. "That's a good thing."

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In the next 12 to 18 months, the new owners say $20-million worth of upgrades will be completed at Innisbrook, which will host the PGA Tours PODS Championship in March. Those upgrades will include a spa and a 4,000-square-foot fitness center with studios and locker rooms.

"Spas have become an essential part of a great resort experience, and unique spas are very important for the resorts of the higher echelon," Devadas said.

The 12,000-square-foot spa at Innisbrook is designed to connect with nature. Each of the 12 treatment rooms will have an outdoor terrace. There will be an outdoor courtyard with a fire pit and relaxation pools. Jacuzzis and cabanas will make the spa a year-round experience. It is expected to be completed by the end of 2008 and will bring about 50 jobs to the resort.

In addition, all of Innisbrook's 65,000 square feet of meeting space, along with the three clubhouses, will get facelifts.

Salamander will bring one of its speciality markets and delis to the Highlands Clubhouse. An upscale restaurant will be added at the Copperhead Clubhouse; the Turnberry Pub at the Island Clubhouse will be updated to a traditional golf grill and bar.

At the tennis center, the 11 Har-tru courts will undergo surface renovations, and seating areas will be added in an effort to attract high-profile tennis events.

Chuck Pomerantz, vice president and managing director at Innisbrook, said partnerships are being developed with former tennis star Zena Garrison and Billy Jean King to bring tennis events to the resort.

"With every day that goes by, we get more and more excited," Devadas said.

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at dalee@sptimes.com or 445-4174.

By The Numbers 

$1.7M Amount of renovations done on the Island Course in the past 90 days.

$20M Amount of renovations the new owners intend to do in the next 12 to 18 months.

$53M Amount of losses the resort incurred from 1999 to 2004 under a previous owner.

71 The Island Course's new par.

4,000 Square feet for the new fitness center with studios and locker rooms.

50 Number of new jobs the spa's expansion is supposed to bring by 2008.