OKEECHOBEE — Bass Pro officials unveiled their plan for a world class fishing resort at the Okee-Tantie recreation area at the March 12 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission.
Bass Pro officials told commissioners their team is still committed to and enthusiastic about the project. However, they will need additional time to get the necessary permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The commissioners agreed to give the company a 14-month extension on the final purchase decision.
Tom Jowett, vice president of design and development, said the Okeechobee resort project is one of three major resorts they are developing in Florida. The Floridian Sports Club is near Jacksonville. Valhalla is on an island near Marathon.
“At the Okeechobee resort, our goal is create a destination that is friendly and inviting to the entire world,” he said. The resort will include a lodge with 80 rooms in the first phase and expansion to 120 rooms later, a restaurant, RV camping and “glamping” units. He explained a glamping unit is a tent with air conditioning and indoor plumbing.
The Uncle Buck’s Fish Bowl restaurant will give diners the illusion they are under water, he continued.
The company has already invested $400,000 in payments to Okeechobee County and another $149,450 in site evaluation, topographical survey, geotechnical investigation and planning. They expect to spend another $149,000 in the planning phase, even before permits are complete.
“We have done an extensive amount of work,” said Mr. Jowett.
One of the greatest challenges is how to deal with the risk of flooding, he explained. He said they also have the challenge of protecting wetlands and endangered species.
He said they plan to dig a canal between the existing pond area and the current marina, which will allow them put in a second marina. The material dug from the canal will be used to build up other areas.
“We very excited about what we have learned,” he said.
“Mr. (Johnny) Morris likes to remind us we like challenging projects,” said Dan Hoy, director of facilities.
“We’ve got the right expertise guiding us in this very difficult project and we feel very good about it,” he said.
He said they are working with the corps in regard to the elevation considered to be in a flood zone. Currently, for Okee-Tantie, “If that site were ever flooded to that level it would leave approximately 20 percent of the land above the water line,” he explained. The historic high water mark is 18.56 feet, he added.
Since the schedule for Lake Okeechobee calls for keeping the lake under 16 feet, they might be able to change the flood zone limits, he said. Otherwise, they can use fill to raise the areas for the structures.
Mr. Hoy said the company is dedicated to protecting the environment and to encouraging people to enjoy the outdoors. Protected species in the area include gopher tortoises, indigo snakes, snail kites, West Indian manatees and crested caracaras.
Mr. Hoy said if they cannot obtain the corps permits to develop the site, then there is still a possibility the site cannot be permitted for any project.
“Mr. Morris is absolutely in love with the site,” he said.
“I have been working with Mr. Morris for many years. He is famous for saying we will not rush a project,” he continued.
“The conservation ethic that Mr. Morris promotes is a very real cultural value for the company. We want to be certain we strike the right balance for the greater conservation cause.”
“We love this project,” said Tim Mahoney, vice president for strategic partnerships. “Mr. Morris and everyone on the team working on the development love a challenge.
“We are convinced we can create a resort here that will appear to a lot of people,” he said.
“On the elevation issue, we know there are two things we can do — get a variance, or alternately, we raise the elevation of the property.
“We know the county is working with the state on septic-to-sewer to bring sewer service to that area,” he said. “Our alternative is to re-create a wastewater treatment plant.
“There are challenges associated with this site, but John and the entire group are 100 percent behind this project,” he said.
“We are committed to spend the money and time to go through with that,” he continued. “We’ve done other projects that people considered to be impossible.”
He said Bass Pro could easily have $1 million invested before they know if the project can obtain the permits to build the resort.
“Lake Okeechobee is a national treasure,” said Bob Ziehmer, senior director of conservation. He said Bass Pro is committed to the project and to improving and protecting the ecology of Lake Okeechobee.