In this Sept. 14, 2016 video, the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club put the final touches on its renovated course redesigned by John Sanford with Jack Nicklaus as a consultant. J. Scott Butherus
The storied Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club will get a new look — and new owners.
On Monday the Watkins family, third-generation owners and operators of the landmark property, announced a strategic relationship with The Athens Group, based in Phoenix, to redevelop it and "enhance its legacy."
In a news release, the family said the 125-acre property will continue to support a hotel and golf club with a beach bar, putting to rest rumors of more drastic plans to reshape it.
While redevelopment plans are still in the works, they include adding residences to help preserve the resort's golf course, redesigned in 2016 by golf icon Jack Nicklaus and noted course architect John Sanford.
Children watch as athletes compete in the 31st Annual Fitness Challenge Triathlon at Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club on Sunday, June 4, 2017. (Photo: Dorothy Edwards/Naples Daily News)
The Watkins family plans to continue operating the hotel and golf club through the 2020-21 season as it works with The Athens Group on redevelopment. After that, ownership will transition to The Athens Group, considered one of the nation's premier developers of luxury communities, resorts, golf courses and urban mixed-use projects.
The Watkins family has operated Naples' oldest resort for more than 70 years.
In October 2016, Michael Watkins, the resort's president and an owner, confirmed the family enlisted a "well-respected international real estate firm" to look into options for the iconic property that stretches from the beach to U.S. 41 in the heart of Naples. At the time, he said the future of the property was wide open, with other uses a possibility.
The family met with many of the top real estate developers in the country to hear their visions for the property's future before choosing The Athens Group, Watkins said in a statement Monday.
"We ultimately decided on The Athens Group based on their first-class hotel portfolio and their genuine commitment to continuing our family's legacy at The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club," he said. "The future of the resort is very important to our family, as we intend to remain contributing members of the Naples community."
The Athens Group was founded in 1988 by Kim A. Richards. The company's portfolio includes such well-known hotels and resorts as the Four Seasons in Hualalai, Hawaii, and the Ritz-Carltons in Bachelor Gulch/Vail Valley, Colorado, and Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco.
"The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club is a rare gem, and we are honored to have been chosen by the Watkins family to work with them on its redevelopment," Richards said in a statement. "The family has played an incredibly important role in the rich history of Naples, and an opportunity to continue that kind of legacy is a privilege."
The original Naples Hotel dates to the 1880s, and its golf course, Naples' first 18-hole layout, to 1929.
Henry B. Watkins Sr. — Michael Watkins' grandfather — was a 56-year-old retired toy manufacturer from Ohio when he bought the original hotel in 1946, with The Beach Club and its golf course, and then moved the hotel to its location at 851 Gulf Shore Blvd., overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
A photo of the old Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club sign that stood on U.S. 41. (Photo: Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club)
The Watkinses weren't looking for the highest bidder for the property.
"There were many great ideas presented during this process," said Henry B. Watkins III, Michael's brother, who shares ownership. "We gained a level of comfort that The Athens Group's vision closely aligns with our family's vision to enhance the property — to make it more attractive, functional and beautiful — while retaining the cultural heritage that is so unique to Naples."
Naples Mayor Bill Barnett sees the announcement as a positive for the city. He said he likes that the Watkins family will stay involved for a few more years in the transition.
Rumors ran wild over the past few years about what might become of the property, including suggestions the golf course might be replaced with apartments or the hotel replaced with high-rise residential towers. Plans to preserve the golf course — and its green space — will be welcome news to many city residents, Barnett said.
"I think that the first bit of reassurance that anybody can take from this is the golf course is going to stay there," he said. "That was and is a big concern for many people."
He said he expects the new owners to redevelop the property in a way that it will "blend right in" with the city.
"These are real professionals," Barnett said. "It's just not going to be a thrown together project. It's going to be carefully planned. I think that The Athens Group is very excited about the potential the property has."
He expects the city to be involved in the redevelopment project, although it's still unclear what kind of government approvals will be needed.
Naples hotelier and developer Phil McCabe said he invested in a condominium at The Athens Group's Ritz-Carlton property in Vail Valley years ago, where his kids learned to ski. He said the group's properties are impressive, usually five-star, five-diamond, and he expects the Naples property to achieve the same stature.
McCabe said the project will be a win for the community and for the Watkins family, especially for Michael.
"He's worked hard over the years," McCabe said. "It's a 24/7 job."
John Lehmann, president of the Old Naples Association, a civic group representing thousands of residents in Naples, said he met with the Watkins family and the redevelopers Monday. "We were impressed," he said.
The proposal speaks to the family's generosity and respect for the city and its residents, Lehmann said.
"To maintain a great hotel, a vibrant social scene and over 100 acres of green space in the heart of the city is a tremendous outcome for everyone," he said. "The Old Naples Association and the residents we represent support the plan as described to us."