PLANTATION KEY -- The strip of vacant and decaying buildings that dots the northern entrance to the village of Islamorada could soon be getting a retrofit.
In December, newly formed Atlantic Horizons Islamorada LLC acquired the seven northernmost lots on the Old Highway extension called Freelan Road. The oceanside lots, which abut a canal that opens into Tavernier Creek, sit practically in the shadow of the sign welcoming motorists coming from the mainland to the village.
Atlantic Horizons has already begun cleaning out the old Plantation Fisheries as well as two other buildings on the strip, including the old Tavernier Dive Shop. It's all part of a plan to bring in a new fish house, along with a restaurant, retailers, a coffee shop and potentially even a new dive shop to the site.
Project manager Nick Lee, whose mother Catherine Ketay and friend Martin Lane Jr. own Atlantic Horizons, said they're aiming to have all the construction complete in six months, though they're not making any promises.
So far, Atlantic Horizons is working off of a demolition permit issued by the village and has submitted only preliminary construction plans for review. Lee said he expects to submit a formal site plan to the village this week. The goal, he said, is to keep the proposal compliant with the site's existing commercial fishing zoning so it can be approved administratively, rather than requiring a hearing before the Village Council.
While Lee, an Islamorada resident, is excited about the business venture, he also said that cleaning up blight was a motivating factor in Atlantic Horizons' decision to acquire the strip of properties.
"It's looked like a dump for five years," he said. "It's the first thing you see when you get to the village."
In fact, the Freelan Road strip already looked weathered in 2005, when the now defunct Cay Clubs development company paid nearly $14 million to acquire 18 properties on the street. Cay Clubs aspired to gate the area off and redevelop it as a ritzy waterfront townhome community. But when the company collapsed in early 2008 amid the crumbling real estate market, its financial backer, the Hallandale-based Sunvest Resort Communities, was left holding the Freelan Road bag. Sunvest ultimately turned the properties back over to its lender, Orion Bank, for $9 million, a $4.8 million loss.
The bank was able to sell the 11 most southerly lots of the 18 that Cay Clubs originally purchased. Those sites house relatively new as well as longstanding businesses, including Made to Order Café, Vic's Auto Tech and Creekside Inn. But the seven northernmost lots stretching to the creek remained in bank hands, switching over to the control of Louisiana-based Iberia Bank in 2009 after federal regulators shut down Orion for unsound lending practices.
Records from Atlantic Horizons' purchase of those properties last month have not yet been posted on the Clerk of the Court's website, but Lee said they acquired them for just $865,000.
Once redevelopment is complete, Atlantic Horizon plans to rent out the spaces for the various business ventures it envisions for the site. The restaurant, which is to be 1,500 square feet, will naturally be a seafood house, Lee said. The lessee has not yet been selected.
But the proprietor of the fish house has been determined. Commercial and recreational fisherman Kiki Ferrer plans to run the market as a wholesale and retail venture, an expansion of his existing Unlimited Seafood Inc.
Commercial fishermen who supply the fish house will be based in some of the site's nine boat slips.
"We're going to have lobstermen, commercial yellowtailers, stonecrabbers," Ferrer said.
If things proceed apace, it all spells good news for the village, Islamorada Mayor Ken Philipson said when asked about the project last week.
"It echoes the fact that the village is going forward and helping people get things done," he said. "It's progress. Certainly, it tells people that Islamorada is very viable."