OKEECHOBEE – The Okeechobee County Commissioners approve an extension for the Okee-Tantie project at their July 22, 2021 meeting.
Big Cedar LLC (the resort arm of Bass Pro) has plans to turn the Okee-Tantie Recreation Area into a world class fishing resort. They have been waiting on approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to put in a second marina, which will be exclusive to resort guests.
Commissioners expressed frustration at the misinformation spread on social media about the project.
“Bass Pro is alive. They are not stepping away,” said Commission Chair Terry Burroughs. “We are trying to work with these people every single day.”
The latest obstacle to the project is an easement only recently discovered. “The Army Corps found this particular easement tucked away in West Palm Beach in 1938,” said Burroughs. At the time the county signed the contract with Bass Pro, they had cleared the title with the state and had no idea about the additional federal easement.
County Attorney Wade Vose said the corps is preparing support documents to allow the project to move forward.
The amendment approved Thursday extended the option period to a date one year after the county secures the release of the federal easement that currently encumbers the property, Vose explained.
This extension provides what was in the real estate contract when the county signed it. At the time the contract was signed, the county was not aware the easement existed. If the county cannot accomplish the release of the easement, the $400,0000 deposit Bass Pro has given the county so far will have to be returned, Vose advised.
“If we are successful in removing this regulatory hurdle, the deposit money is going to be ours,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread.
Burroughs encouraged members of the public to call him or his fellow commissioners if they have a question instead of relying on speculation shared on social media. “There are four county commissioners plus the county staff who would be happy to provide you with accurate, valid information,” he said.
Okee-Tantie is located inside the Herbert Hoover Dike, with the Kissimmee River to the west.
In 1971, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) developed the site as the Okee-Tantie Recreation Area with a recreational vehicle park, campground, bait and tackle shop and marina, and operated it until 1991.
At that time, the district planned to close the park, but an extensive letter-writing campaign sponsored by the Okeechobee News persuaded SFWMD and the county commissioners to work out a way keep it open.
The original campground had two areas for RVs. The current parking lot has spaces for roughly 100 cars and/or trucks/ trailers.
Okee-Tantie was conveyed to the county by SFWMD. The popular RV campground operated at full capacity during the winter months until the hurricanes of 2004 substantially damaged the park. After the hurricanes, part of the park was able to reopen, but a large area was heavily damaged and not rehabilitated. Occupancy and revenue began to decline, resulting in a decision by the county to close the RV campground and bait and tackle store in October 2012.
The first time the county sought proposals, it was for a lease on the park. Guy Harvey Outpost and Elite Resorts initially proposed a long-term lease, and planned to rent the RV spaces to visitors.
At the June 9, 2016, county commission meeting, Guy Harvey representatives explained that after doing more research into the expense that the renovations would require, including replacing the utility lines, they determined that in order to secure the necessary financing, they need to purchase the campground portion of the property so that they could sell RV lots there.
At that time, they proposed to lease the area with the boat docks, marina and the main building (formerly Lightsey’s Restaurant) and purchase the rest of the campground.
This change in the proposal required the county to obtain permission from the state, since the state still had an interest in the property. The county completed the purchase of the state’s interest in the Hog Island property in October 2016. This allowed the county the option to sell the campground. The change in the proposal also meant the county had to go out for bids again.
At their Nov. 10, 2016, meeting, the Okeechobee County Commission adopted an ordinance that allowed the county to consider factors other than price when choosing the best “bid” on county property.
Due to the changes in the concept, the county had to put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) on the property and allow all interested parties to bid.
On May 16, 2017, the county received two proposals for the acquisition and redevelopment of Okee-Tantie Campground and Marina from Outpost Club Lake Okeechobee LLC (Guy Harvey) and Bass Pro Shops.
Bass Pro offered to pay the county $3 million, with $300,000 paid up front. Bass Pro then would have nine months to develop plans for the site. If after that time Bass Pro determines the project is not viable, the county would keep the $300,000.
Guy Harvey’s plan would have started with a lease for up to 48 months, at a rate of $1/year, followed by payments of $550,000 when the first phase was completed, and $550,000 when the second phase was completed up to 60 months. The county would also receive 1 percent of park receipts, with the rate increasing at half a percent every five years, for a max of the county receiving 5 percent of park receipts.
At their June 22, 2017, meeting, the county commissioners unanimously chose Bass Pro’s proposal to develop the campground.
On Jan. 16, 2018, the Okeechobee County Board of Commissioners officially signed the contract with Bass Pro to develop the Okee-Tantie Recreation Area.
“We believe that we are the most qualified partner to design, develop and operate a high-quality fishing resort on the most notable bass fishing lake in America,” Johnny Morris, Bass Pro Shops founder, wrote in their bid on the project. “We also feel that the strength of our company and its marketing horsepower make us the very best marketing partner to promote this great fishing destination.
“For over 30 years, Bass Pro Shops has been sharing outdoor passions through our nature-based Resort Division. From our previous personal visits to this property, as well as the many years spent fishing there, I believe our company is the absolute best long-term partner to develop the amazing lakefront property known as Okee-Tantie.
“We are very passionate and serious about committing to invest our time and resources to develop this property in a first-class manner,” Mr. Morris wrote.
The proposal overview states: “Our vision, as detailed within this document, is to create a nature-based, fishing resort destination that offers all visitors a variety of world-class accommodations, state-of-the-art marina facilities for fishing and boating, and genuine world-class hospitality.”
Since signing the contract, Bass Pro added another $100,000 to the down payment in exchange for a contract extension. The option was part of the original contract.