Dorado looking to reclaim top Caribbean status

No. 4 on Dorado Beach's East Course.

DORADO, Puerto Rico – On a recent, muggy Friday morning,bulldozers rumbled and workers scurried about near the 18th green of the newly renovated East Course at Dorado Beach Resort & Club, tearing down the old clubhouse to clear room for two private villas expected to fetch $7.5 million apiece.

On a separate site nearby, more workers and heavy machinery were in the initial phase of erecting a seaside, 115-key Ritz-Carlton Reserve, only the second hotel from Ritz’s top-shelf brand to be built worldwide. 

While most resort projects in the Caribbean and U.S. are stalled, if not dead in the water, the entire northwest corner of 1,400-acre Dorado Beach Resort is one giant construction zone manned each day by 500 workers. That number is expected to grow to 700 in the coming months as the $342 million first phase of redevelopment kicks into high gear. Eric Christensen, the resort’s CEO and the man charged with overseeingthe rebirth of the Caribbean’s first major golf resort, understands what an anomaly this is.

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Architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. (left) and Laurance S. Rockefeller discuss plans in the early days of Dorado Beach.

The Dorado Dossier

What: 1,400-acre resort and residential property; three miles of coastline; four 18-hole golf courses originally designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr.

Where: 28-mile drive west of Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, on Puerto Rico’s northern coast

Redevelopment plan: Key features include a thorough renovation of the East Course, which reopened in October; construction of a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, scheduled to open in December 2012, with 100 guest rooms, 14 one-bedroom suites and a renovated, five-bedroom VIP villa; renovations to the remaining three golf courses also proceeding.

Notable: José Andrés, winner of the James Beard Foundation’s 2011 outstanding chef award, has been signed to open a restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Reserve.

“Almost everybody else I know in my business is out of work these days,” Christensen said.

This is the third act in the story of Dorado Beach Resort. It began when Laurance S. Rockefeller, grandson of the Standard Oil founder, bought this former coconut and grapefruit plantation in 1955 and began fashioning it into a luxurious, eco-friendly retreat. He hired Robert Trent Jones Sr. to build a golf course, which opened in 1958. Dorado Beach eventually became home to four Jones courses, most famously the East Course, which used to be a regular stop on the Champions Tour.

In the early years, Dorado Beach was a hideaway for celebrities and Rockefeller’s well-heeled friends, who often were entertained by the resort’s gregarious head pro, Chi Chi Rodriguez. 

Those were the salad days, which ended with the 1985 sale to Hyatt Corp. What followed was a steady decline before Hyatt exited. That led to the third act: A new ownership group, led by the New York-based Caribbean Property Group and Puerto Rican developer Federico Stubbe, arrived in 2008 with a Rockefellerian vision.

What ownership initially lacked, however, was the financing to pay for its grand plans. Last summer, the government of Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth that counts on Washington to subsidize nearly half of its $9 billion annual budget, jump-started the project with $231 million in loan guarantees, including $15 million in cash. If you’re wondering where all of those shovel-ready jobs went, many of them now can be found at Dorado Beach.

The government backing provided assurances not only for the bankers but home buyers as well. 

“People buying real estate here know that the project is going to be completed because the completion is literally guaranteed,” Christensen said. “So if someone gives us a downpayment for a home, we don’t use that downpayment to go get financing, and then they lose their downpayment if the project fails. . . . That’s because we’re building with the government’s guarantee, not the people’s payments.” 

There are tangible signs of progress. On the south side of the property, there is a large water park, health club and condo towers with swank three-bedroom units starting in the high six figures.

Now the action has shifted to the coastal side of the property with the construction of the Ritz and the reopening last month of the East Course following a makeover led by one of Jones’ sons, Robert Trent Jones Jr. 

Jones is loathe to rank the East Course among his late father’s work – “You guys rank things,” he chided during an interview – but allowed that “it’s certainly one of his masterpieces.” When pressed, he placed the East among his father’s “top 20 courses,” grouping it with such classics as Spyglass Hill and Peachtree Golf Club. 

Before the renovations, it didn’t merit being mentioned in that company. The East had grown decrepit, with trees and volunteer foliage encroaching on the playing area and blocking ocean views, even on Nos. 1 and 18, which are adjacent to the beach. “It was very claustrophobic and closed-in,” recalled Brad Boyd, director of agronomy.

Much-needed tree maintenance has recaptured the ocean motif and improved playability and turf conditions. Bunkers were lowered to make them more visible from tees, but extended beyond typical landing areas. Thanks to some adjustments to the green complexes, the ground game is back, as are Jones Sr.’s trademark runway tees, which stretch from 50 to 150 yards.

The East may no longer be the Caribbean’s best course – others have emerged in recent decades – but it again deserves to be in the conversation.

“It’s a very classic, clean, straightforward, honest golf course,” Jones said. 

Still, it remains to be seen whether Dorado Beach can recapture its past glory. The resort has several factors working in its favor. First, there’s the government’s largess, which all but ensures that the first phase of a decade-long, $1 billion redevelopment will be completed in December 2012 when the Ritz Reserve opens. 

Puerto Rico’s location and status as an American territory make it an easy, passport-free destination for the U.S. market. (Christensen anticipates 90 percent of sales will come from the mainland, with New York City being the most target-rich market.) Dorado Beach also is only 28 miles west of the San Juan airport, though rush-hour traffic can make that a 70-minute drive. And there seems to be a solid management team in place. Christensen has helped develop boutique (Auberge du Soleil) and large-scale (Euro Disney) resorts for much of the past 25 years. And KemperSports, which manages the property, has demonstrated its ability to run large operations, including Bandon Dunes Golf Resort.

But much will depend on the renovations to the remaining three courses – the West, which is adjacent to the East, and Sugarcane and Pineapple, which are on the south side of the property. The East always was the draw, with the other courses handling spillover traffic. That’s no longer good enough in a more competitive resort marketplace; the other courses need to pull their weight.

Jones suggests “rethinking” the West Course – reversing the routing, widening the playing corridors. “It will always be second to the East Course, no matter what you do,” he said. “So rather than try to be alike, be different from it.”

He advocates renovating one of the two remaining courses, and turning the remaining 18 holes into a family golf area: “No tees; just make up your own game,” he said. Christensen sees the appeal of that idea.

Both men feel the weight of Rockefeller’s legacy. Upon visiting Dorado Beach for the opening of Jones Sr.’s first course in 1958, Herbert Warren Wind was so impressed that he observed, “The Rockefellers not only do things well, they do them right.”

For Jones, Christensen and all of those busy construction workers, that’s a heady standard to meet.

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