In Depth

Margaritaville plan to remake Hollywood beach

One thing is clear: Change is coming for Hollywood beach.

With construction of a $147 million resort set to begin next month, gone will be the playground and open area — and the throwback vibe — tourists and locals currently enjoy at Johnson Street and the beach.

It’s being replaced by Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort, a 349-room hotel complete with seven restaurants and bars, several pools including one in the shape of a flip-flop, and a double surf FlowRider for anyone wanting to hit the waves but not really wanting to go to the beach.

Harvey Hopkins has been coming to the beach every day for 45 years. From his perch on the silver bleachers across from the Johnson Street Bandshell, he surveys the scene: some locals sit outside enjoying happy hour at a beachfront bar; joggers and bicycle riders zoom by on the Broadwalk, and sun worshipers stretch out on the sand.

“To me, the beach is kind of sleepy,” he said. “Something needs to be done to wake it up.”

But Hollywood beach resident Wade Hughes likes it exactly as it is now.

“I don’t go to South Beach or Fort Lauderdale Beach because it’s too crowded,” said Hughes, enjoying a slice from Rocco’s Pizza on Johnson Street. “This is the last locals’ beach there is.”

Local historian Paul George, who often gives walking tours of the beach, said Johnson Street reminds him of “a town of yesteryear.”

“Margaritaville threatens to radically change that,” he said, adding the verdict is out on whether it’s a change for the good or bad.

“Only time will tell,” George said.

Perhaps the best example of a transformation from a 1950s throwback to a resort destination is visible just five miles to the south.

Less than two decades ago, Sunny Isles Beach was a neighborhood of two-story mom-and-pop hotels, with names like Thunderbird and Golden Nugget, and outside decor that included camels and a lighthouse. It’s where Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner spent their honeymoon.

Today, luxury condos and upscale hotels line the nearly two miles of beachfront. The Trump International Beach Resort soars 30-plus stories above the ocean. Close by is the five-star Acqualina Resort & Spa.

“The development has transformed the city from a sleepy retirement community to a very upscale, sophisticated urban center,” said Sunny Isles Beach Mayor Norman Edelcup. He added that the beach development has improved the rest of the city, adding parks and even a school.

Margaritaville is a good first step for Hollywood, Edelcup said. “They really need to capitalize on the beachfront,” he added.

Proponents for Jimmy Buffett’s paradise — flowing drinks, toes in the sand and tanned beauties — say Margaritaville is a good fit for Hollywood.

The resort will help put Hollywood on the map, suggested Nicki E. Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Margaritaville is going to be the key to further the tourism infrastructure on the beach,” she said.

While Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort will bring a new twist to the beach, city leaders say they will work hard to maintain the charm of what’s there. The beloved bandshell, where people gather nightly to dance or just listen to the music, will stay.

It will also get a complete makeover. The bleachers will be replaced with Adirondack chairs, and the hotel agreed to maintain the stage and provide music at least five nights a week.

The Broadwalk, where hundreds of people jog, bike and walk daily, will not be touched.

A new community plaza and public restrooms will be added.

And to accommodate all the expected guests, there will be a new parking garage with 600 public spaces.

While Hollywood beach certainly has it charms, it will be so much better with an attraction, said Lon Tabatchnick, the main project developer.

“I think the Broadwalk is lacking a resort destination that people can experience for more than a day,” he said. “The location is the perfect fit for this type resort.”

But some local businesses are worried about what will happen to them during the 28 months of construction.

“Change isn’t always good,” said Joe “Chiacchiarone” Davis, who works at Rocco’s Pizza, a Hollywood beach mainstay for more than 20 years.

Davis thinks the future construction is going to kill the restaurants and shops that are there now. “The only people [Margaritaville] is going to help is big businesses,” he said.

“Change is inevitable,” counters Jorge Camejo, director of the Hollywood Community Redevelopment Agency.

Hollywood’s CRA has already fed more than $45 million into fixing up the Broadwalk over the last decade. Camejo predicts Margaritaville will be a catalyst for more development and help reshape the aging infrastructure. The CRA has pledged $23 million to help the hotel with furniture and equipment.

But some have their doubts the resort will ever get built, at least, as it’s being envisioned.

“I won’t believe it until I see a shovel in the ground,” said Mike Taylor, the manager of St. Maurice Beach Inn, which is next to the Margaritaville site.

Taylor said he’s been hearing for years that something would be built.

Indeed, the city has been trying to get a resort built on the site since the late 1990s. But each time, prospective developers weren’t able to pull together the necessary financing.

This time, it’s different. The city has given Tabatchnick numerous extensions to get permits and financing.

And this time, there is a major finance company involved: Starwood Capital, which once backed high-end hotels, including St. Regis, W, Westin, and Sheratons globally. Starwood has pledged to invest a minimum in equity of $45 million.

“The fact that they are willing to back the project says a lot,” said Scott Brush, a hotel consultant, who has worked in South Florida for more than 30 years. “Starwood is an industry heavyweight.”

As to anyone who worries that Margaritaville will destroy the nostalgic feel Hollywood beach currently offers, City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark has an answer:

“There is going to be a point that when you walk by, it’s going to be like it was always there.”