Looking west up the St. Lucie River at sunset, the Club Med complex created an exotic and romantic backdrop for visitors.
ST. LUCIE COUNTY OFFICE OF TOURISM
After almost 40 years in the city, Club Med Sandpiper Bay is leaving Port St. Lucie. The 200-acre resort and golf course on the St. Lucie River has offered laid-back vacation experiences since the company bought the property from the original developer of Port St. Lucie, General Development Corp., in 1986.
The complex has long boasted superior sports and leisure amenities that include a marina, golf course, tennis courts, and soccer and other field sports areas. These assets are seen as vital to its mission by new owner Altitude International Holdings Inc. The company operates sports and academic academies all over the world and offers training facilities for both youth and adult athletes seeking to excel in their sports. Altitude actually has occupied part of the Port St. Lucie property for the last 15 years.
Altitude’s plans for the complex are fluid for the moment. Beyond informing the public that the property sold for $55 million and that the real estate changed hands as of the end of July, details have been sparse. Altitude CEO Greg Breunich issued a statement that the company intends to continue operating both as a resort and a sports academy.
Breunich said he would like to retain as many of the 225 Club Med employees as possible, but has released no details about numbers employed. He said the company plans a two-year renovation program at the 335-room complex, but intends to honor existing guest reservations after Sept. 6.
What is not clear is how the company will market the property. No new name has been announced and it’s unclear how keeping visitors flowing into the property [aside from sports-related clients] will be achieved without the clout of the Club Med branding.
Yet the company’s sports training programs will continue uninterrupted, according to the Altitude website. The programs are not for the light of wallet. For example, a youth athlete attending both sports and academic classes in the fall-winter semester can expect to pay $87,105 for full room, meals and instruction. Rates in the spring and summer are considerably cheaper at $22,366 for the full board option and private school rate.
Summer and holiday camps run at $2,256 per person per week [full board]. There are also classes available for active adults. These range in cost from $125 for a two-hour session. Adult classes include golf, tennis, triathlon, volleyball, basketball, swimming, weight training and even trapeze training.
Altitude’s website explains the company’s mission as changing “the landscape of performance sports training and educating the next generation of athletes.” The website talks about the company’s “world-renowned coaches and our well-established proven training methodologies, our commitment to high academic standards, our respect for diversity and our dedication to creating exceptional opportunities for personal growth and optimal potential.”
The website also notes that its staff and specialist coaches have helped develop some of the world’s top athletes including gold medalists, world champions and MVPs.
Locally, reaction to the change in ownership has been largely positive.
“As the largest hotel property in St. Lucie County, we are excited to learn that the property will remain a resort and we are looking forward to seeing how it transitions under the new ownership,” said Charlotte Bireley, St. Lucie County’s director of tourism.
Port St. Lucie Mayor Shannon Martin said, “We look forward to welcoming the new owners, Altitude International Holdings Inc., which has a 40-year history of developing performance academics and operation in hospitality.”
Yet Martin also noted, “It was heartbreaking to see Club Med moving its operations out of Port St. Lucie. Our hearts go out to the employees.”
The company indicated its long-term vision for the property is to incorporate the resort hotel operations and the existing sports academy with a comprehensive real estate development strategy. To date, company officials have yet to offer any more information about their real estate intentions.
Although Club Med occupied the Sandpiper Bay complex for almost 40 years, the site’s history began long before the French company came to Florida. In 1958, Port St. Lucie’s first developer, GDC, purchased 8,500 acres of land along the St. Lucie River and dedicated a little more than 1,100 acres to creating the Port St. Lucie Country Club, which included two golf courses. The Country Club opened in 1961, before the actual city of Port St. Lucie was formally incorporated.
The club boasted superior golfing facilities and club rooms, but no overnight accommodations. Billed as a “hotel of homes,” the new club consisted of 250 small villas built along Morningside Boulevard and adjoining streets, the Saints and Sinners golf courses, two tennis courts, the clubhouse, a pool, 19th Hole, pro shop and the marina. The villas offered accommodation by the week, month or season at rates far less than ordinary quarters in a good hotel or motel — which was almost revolutionary at the time.
The “homes” were one-, two- and three-bedroom villas located directly on the golf course. Many still remain, but most have been extensively renovated with kitchen additions. The original villas lacked any cooking facilities and consisted of a bedroom, bathroom and living area. There was one tiny closet in many of them. Food was available at the country club or could be delivered via golf cart by employees.
The new resort attracted some big names. The Saints and Sinners courses opened in February 1961 and the former links hosted the first Perry Como Invitational Tournament that year. The popular Jupiter Island-based crooner quickly became a fan of the new club and invited many of his sporting and entertainment buddies to try it out, including Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Sam Snead, Joe Di Maggio and actor Vincent Price. Dinah Shore even taped much of one TV series at the club. GDC clearly saw the resort as a valuable marketing tool that could attract buyers for the hundreds of new homes it was constructing all over the city. By 1967, there was a hotel and conference center consisting of 168 rooms. Soon after the hotel opened, the 250 golf villas were sold off to private buyers.
By 1972, GDC decided to bring in the Hilton franchise and renamed the property the St. Lucie Hilton Inn and Country Club. But by 1975, the Hilton franchise was dropped and the complex was renamed Sandpiper Bay. Guest accommodations were increased to 276 rooms around this time.
Sandpiper Bay continued the reputation as a premier golf destination. Along with the Perry Como Invitational, the courses hosted the Western Seniors, PGA Winter Tournament Series, the Sears LPGA Classic, the PGA Series and the Florida PGA Open.
In 1986, GDC decided to sell the property to French company Club Med. It was rather an odd marriage right from the start. Club Med was trying to gain a foothold in North America after great success in Europe and elsewhere as the purveyor of alternative, freewheeling vacations. Its resorts sprang up in France and Greece, often located right on the beach and using primitive huts for sleeping. It was a no-car, no-phone type lifestyle that sometimes included nude sunbathing.
That was most definitely not what the company and city fathers had in mind for Port St. Lucie. In an April 1986 article in the [Fort Lauderdale] Sun Sentinel, Councilman Frank Alexander said he doubted that Club Med’s carefree and bohemian lifestyle would follow it to the retirement community.
“Club Med is promoted as a place for singles and nude sunbathing. That wouldn’t go down here,” Alexander stated in the news article. “They don’t look good in bathing suits,” he said of Port St. Lucie residents. “We’re not the jet set!”
Club Med purchased the property for $32 million and spent the next three decades catering to small family groups and conventions. There is no record of any nude sunbathing taking place on the premises.
In the 1980s, the Sun Sentinel noted, Club Med only had two U.S. properties [the other was a ski resort in Colorado], and was looking to bring its unique brand stateside. Yet the initiative failed, despite the company’s success in operating vacation villages in 31 countries around the world.
In 2001, Club Med sold the Saints golf course to the city for $3.6 million. And now, Sandpiper Bay is about to undergo yet another change in ownership and direction.
The site was the first to put Port St. Lucie on the map and to attract both the famous and regular folks to the city. The new owners’ business plan looks to extend their mission at a slightly different tangent.
Residents have to wait for more details of exactly how Altitude International plans to do that in the coming months.
Sept. 16, 2022