In the Know: Real estate sales hit; Allegiant's abandoned Sunseeker Resort; 2 J.C. Penney closings; Sprouts opening

Phil Fernandez
Naples Daily News

This week, In the Know takes a look at real estate and development including Collier County's latest numbers, Allegiant's massive Sunseeker project that faces an uncertain future, a Southwest Florida pair of J.C. Penney closings and Sprouts opening.

There's absolutely no surprise to anyone that real estate sales took a major dip in the latest numbers from the Naples Area Board of Realtors.

The only question was how low it would go in April as the pandemic raged on and nearly everybody kept their buns in the house.

Agreed-to offers on homes did indeed fall with a 54 percent drop from a year ago. Still, consider that, despite the limited access to residences, potential buyers and homeowners cut deals on 613 pending contracts.

For perspective, In the Know did some research and looked back at NABOR quarterly reports from back in the day during times that have been economically difficult. The entire second quarter of 2007, for example, finished at 1,261 pending, and we're currently well ahead of that pace.

With NABOR touting "a safe path to ownership" and "socially responsible distancing," not everyone stopped peeking through potential pads to purchase, said the agency's president, Lauren Melo, who serves as a broker for Florida's Realty Specialists.

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But certainly fewer folks were knocking on doors, with showings decreasing to 9,420 from 22,862 a year ago.

"What happened was a buyer would participate in several virtual showings, typically while their Realtor did the walk through onsite," said Budge Huskey, CEO of Premier Sotheby's International Realty. "Then, once the buyer eliminated the options down to one or two homes, they would do a physical walk through."

Overall closed sales decreased 28.6 percent to 838 closed sales compared to 1,173 closed sales in April 2019. Adam Vellano, west coast sales manage for BEX Realty, said there are positive takeaways.

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"The fact that Realtors were able to process over 800 closed sales during a month when most of the world was on lock down is a testament to our market's desirability and how real estate professionals are quickly adapting and conducting business in new ways," Vellano said.

At the same time, single family home sales in East Naples (34114, 34117, 34120, 34137) during April actually increased 7.2 percent.

The median price also went up $1,000 to $340,000, according to Brenda Fioretti, managing broker at Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Florida Realty. Contract price averaged 95.9 percent of list price, higher than April 2019's 95.4.

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A pity about Penney

Following the planned closing of Nordstrom at Waterside Shops in Naples, Southwest Florida has two more major departing department stores.

Say a sad good-bye to J.C. Penney in the Gulf Coast Town Center, near the flight path for Southwest Florida Regional Airport, and the Coralwood Shopping Center in Cape Coral.

Those are the initial 154 eliminations by the 118-year-old merchant. So far, the Coastland Center in Naples, Edison Mall in Fort Myers and Port Charlotte Town Center have been spared.

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As part of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the corporation has another 100 or so venues that will get the ax. That list hasn't been revealed.

While it's en vogue to blame the pandemic and the government's handling of it for everything, tough for J.C. Penney to do the same.

The retailer posted losses of $268 million in 2019, its ninth consecutive year of losses.

Way before there was this thing called coronavirus – or at least before the government told us about it – Karl Gibbons of Third Eye Management in Naples has been telling me for months what was coming with anchors.

"Like the dinosaur, (the) models are obsolete and due for extinction," said Gibbons, CEO of the international industry consulting firm. They've "fought the retail apocalypse long and hard, but it has lost the battle."

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Sprouts has sprung

Living up to its appropriate ample assortment of organics, Sprouts sprung open this past week in Estero to $1.48 a pound bunched bad boys of broccoli, $1.25 organic non-mushy mangos and $2.50 packages of fresh organic bright beauties of blueberries and blackberries.

Residents from far and wide shared amor about Sprouts Farmers Market in interviews, emails or on the Facebook pages of the Naples Daily News and Fort Myers News-Press.

Yesenia Betancourt of Naples-based Betancourt’s Painting & Pressure Cleaning said the Sprouts means rarely a need for groceries anywhere else for her.

"I love Sprouts," Betancourt said. "Excellent produce, great bulk section and fair prices."

"Their meat and produce are amazing, and great prices," said Naples resident Jennifer Mott Paupore. "We love Sprouts."

The Lee County debut of Sprouts on Tamiami Trail near Estero Parkway and its 110 employees follows a 2019 launch in North Naples and comes after former rival Lucky's Market abruptly shut down venues and scrapped plans for others in Southwest Florida.

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"I love Sprouts way better then Lucky's," reader Kathy L Lukaszewski said.

While all types of entities have slowed expansion or even evaporated during the epidemic, the 348-strong Sprouts has had a healthy round of openings in Florida and beyond, with more in the works.

Miramar two weeks from now. Seminole next month. The New Tampa area in August. Three additional Sunshine State spots are on the grocer's shopping list but not around here.

"Wish it would come to the Cape," said hair stylist Katie Linton. "Love this store."

Reader Nicholas Abrams knows the perfect spot for Cape Coral: "Right there at Santa Barbara and Veterans. Where the Lucky’s was supposed to be."

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Sunseeker skyline

Even as the uninvited hurricane season barges in, Allegiant Air's idled half-dozen cranes, almost as tall as the Arc de Triomphe of Paris, still dot the skyline at the entrance to Charlotte Harbor.

Don't look at the continuing presence of the imposing 130-foot derricks as a welcome sign that perhaps workers will return soon to the massive Sunseeker Resort site. They're not. For a long, long time. If ever.

Allegiant Travel Co. has abandoned the $1 billion project until at the earliest, right about the time you're pulling the turkey from the oven for Thanksgiving of 2021. Wet suits and space helmets will have replaced our face masks by then.

The operation's latest earnings report had actually declared it "suspended indefinitely" with "no plans for future capital commitments from Allegiant." The mention of a tentative timeline came up during a subsequent conference call explaining the publicly traded organization's finances. And even then leaders didn't want to talk much about it.

 "It's shut down. It's not what we're doing," Allegiant CEO and Chairman Maury Gallagher said. "We got to do something eventually."

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His report suggested, "exploring potential strategic partnerships," but Gallagher and his team declined to explain it further, saying Sunseeker is not the priority.

"One of these difficult but required decisions was to shut down the Sunseeker Resort development. We have said from the outset, the most important component of our model is the airline," said John Redmond, Allegiant president. "We will not put any more capital into the project for at least the next 18 months."

The overall scheme had called for nine condominium towers, a hotel, conference space and dozens of restaurants, bars and retail stores on 22 acres. This initial $435 million phase targeted a trio of nine-story edifices shadowing over the rolling waters adjacent to the Peace River bridges.

For some, the unfinished glob has become Charlotte County's highest profile eyesore of the setbacks it's had, all for the world to see at the community's most visible spot yet on U.S. 41, greeting residents and visitors alike.

"Why does this always happen in Charlotte? With the Laishley Park development, then at Murdock Village and now at Sunseeker," said Water Life Magazine Editor Michael Heller, who has a column in the June edition and figures Sunseeker is sunk. "Tear it down, put it on barges and haul it out into the Gulf. The Sunseeker Artificial Reef would make some fine fish habitat."

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Allegiant left tire tracks elsewhere before taking off.

Looking to supplement its planned oasis, Allegiant had swooped in and acquired the Kingsway Country Club in Lake Suzy a half-dozen miles away to go into the golf business.

It had closed the complex, where it was redoing the grounds, among other things. Now all adjacent residents see is dead grass, with wilting trees. Rain has helped alleviate the highly dry conditions as Southwest Florida moves out of brush fire season.

Local leaders remain optimistic.

“They’ve got $150 million invested in this,” Economic Development Director Dave Gammon told the Charlotte Sun. “They’re not going to walk away.”

It might become beyond Allegiant's control as it struggles to get fully airborne and afford what it can do. In its most recent numbers, Allegiant had a 97 percent drop in customers in April as compared to a year ago. 

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To reach this point, Allegiant went from making $5.5 million a day in bookings to losing $2.5 million daily as the U.S. government grappled with COVID-19 response.

And as Gallagher noted, his company is facing "another important evolution" that could affect business travel.

"The world is learning to do things online to work from home," he said. "This would not have happened but for COVID. Will it change our habits? Some think it will."

Taxpayers are helping Allegiant, with $172 million from the CARES Act. There's also an additional $100 million in federal income tax refunds this year, followed by another potential $100 million that way in 2021, according to industry magazine Global Travel.

To accept CARES funding, which came about partly to help preserve jobs and local economies, airlines had to agree to certain conditions, Global said. But the Trump administration found a creative workaround for Allegiant, which was allowed to suspend service to 10 airports, "because its business model is more akin to an on-demand charter carrier than a scheduled passenger carrier."

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Things are looking up, Allegiant's Hilarie Grey told me Friday.

"We have seen demand rise quite a bit for flights to the west coast and Panhandle of Florida over the past couple of weeks since those communities started re-opening," said Grey, a company managing director. "On the other side of the spectrum, Orlando – which is traditionally one of our strongest markets – has seen very low demand to this point. But we’re hopeful that will change with the successful re-opening of Walt Disney World and other attractions."

Now about those cranes.

"You’ve asked a timely question," Grey said. "Over the next couple of weeks there will be some activity at the site, as the concrete contractor disassembles the formwork, and the cranes are taken down.  It shouldn’t be an issue going forward, but know that the cranes and foundations were engineered to withstand hurricane-force winds.  The main ‘arms’ of the crane were designed to swing free during storms to reduce wind loads."

Based at the Naples Daily News, Columnist Phil Fernandez ( writes In the Know as part of the USA TODAY NETWORK. Support Democracy and subscribe to a newspaper.

In the Know's new columnist, Phil Fernandez. The photo was shot in Naples Daily News studio Thursday, September, 12, 2019.