What Was Bacara’s Dworman Thinking?
Take My Resort, Please
Thursday, February 9, 2012
Resort Just Happened: Whose idea was it to build a luxury resort 12 miles out of town in the middle of nowhere on a less-than-Waikiki beach?
And did the people who bought upscale Bacara Resort & Spa last summer really plan to flip it for $100 million more than they paid six months ago, as rumors would have you believe? My sources say no. The $200-million figure being bandied around is bogus, they say.
They say it’s just that the sale to Ohana Real Estate Investors for a reported $104 million sparked a flurry of investor interest. So sure, it’s available, but at this writing, no firm offers.
Here’s how the Bacara got born: In 1968, a New York real-estate billionaire named Alvin Dworman found himself in possession of more than 70 beach-bluff acres west of Goleta after taking over a failing tire and rubber company that happened to own the beachfront property, not to mention about 1,000 acres across the freeway.
When the Coastal Commission shot down Dworman’s 150-home gated-community plan, he teamed with Hyatt to build a luxury resort. Never mind whether it was the right place.
Dworman’s hunch-style of planning isn’t the way the Mexicans did it at Cancún, when they aimed to locate a dollar-sucking tourist mecca in the Yucatán, hiring experts on climate, water, beach conditions, and the like. The best place, they decided, was a mostly deserted sandbar used by fishermen. Cancún was born.
Dworman, never having been to Santa Barbara, didn’t need any stinking planners, and just plunged in. Opponents surfaced like a school of sharks. Dworman eventually enlisted an army of PR people, and heavyweight supporters like ex-president Gerald Ford and governor George Deukmejian. But he ran into a man who stopped him cold: county supervisor Bill Wallace.
Wallace, according to columnist Nick Welsh, writing in The Santa Barbara Independent in 2000 when the Bacara opened, told one of Dworman’s agents: “I will fight you to the day I die.” To Wallace, it was “leapfrog development,” right on Goleta’s urban-limit line, and it threatened to open up the rest of the coast west of Goleta to development.
A group called Citizens for Goleta Valley joined in the fight and filed a suit that went up to the California Supreme Court and back down again. Then the economy tanked, and Hyatt, unable to get financing, pulled out. Dworman fought on, and so did Wallace and the Citizens. County supervisors eventually okayed the Bacara. A huge mistake, according to Wallace.
Finally, both sides compromised in court, with Hyatt paying Citizens for Goleta Valley
$5 million for environmental protection projects. To give you an idea of how long the battle took, the daughter of Dworman’s lead attorney was 2 years old when he first started working for the developer and 30 when the Bacara opened in 2000.
Some years ago, I met ex-boxer Dworman, a rotund man in a pin-stripe suit, and he looked very happy in those early days. No doubt he’s still very happy to have gotten the resort off his balance sheet. True, it cost him $220 million to build it, who knows how much to keep it afloat, and he unloaded it for a reported $104 million. But then, he’s still hanging onto those thousand or so acres across the freeway.
Today, things are looking brighter for the 360-room Bacara. At first, Dworman, in his dubious wisdom, virtually installed a do-not-enter sign out front to dissuade locals, and his resort could never overcome that cold shoulder. But when the new Ohana owners took over last summer, they changed all that and are reaching out to the community.
Room rates start at $240, but locals can stay during the week for $215 a night, or $260 on weekends. The Bacara welcomed the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last week with a fancy party. I hadn’t been to the Bacara for years, but Sue and I ventured out there last Saturday night when the French cast of the film The Artist was hosted, and we drove 12 miles back for lunch Monday.
It’s a beautiful place to spend your money.
Today, Wallace is philosophical about it all. He’s aware that Bacara’s bed taxes help the city of Goleta. For him, it was all about saving the Gaviota Coast. If the site was virgin land and the project came up now, “I’d probably vote against it.”
Goodbye, Mike: I’ll always remember Mike DeGruy for his big, friendly smile at the Film Festival, where he organized the Reel Nature documentaries. Sadly, Mike died last week in a helicopter crash in Australia. A memorial will be held at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort in the Plaza del Sol at 3 p.m. on Sunday, February 12.