Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter News Analyst
If all goes as planned, Class “A” RVs will have a new resort destination next winter right here in the city of Fernandina Beach, thanks to the vision and determination of local resident and developer, Bob Allison. Allison Properties, Inc. (AP) and Amelia River Golf, LLC have come to terms on a sublease that would allow Allison to convert 115 acres of the leasehold not being used by Amelia River Golf into Amelia Island’s first high end Class “A” RV resort. The sublease will soon be assigned to a new Florida Corporation to be known as Amelia Island’s RV Resorts, LLC (AIRV).
Realizing this plan has some challenges relating to property access and long-term future plans for the municipal airport. Meetings and talks continue with city officials in hopes of resolving these issues amicably.
Who is Bob Allison?
A native of Jacksonville, Bob has been involved in local development for many years. In 1981 at the age of 29 he came before the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) and proposed leasing the downtown waterfront. He appeared before the FBCC 128 times over two and a half years, ultimately raising $7M in private investor funding and grants to build the Fernandina Harbor Marina and Brett’s Waterway Café. He went on to conceive, permit and build a series of residential developments from undeveloped lands, including Egan’s Bluff, Ocean Ridge, Riverside and others. He has developed a reputation for environmentally friendly planning. One of his proudest achievements is the establishment of more than two miles of interconnected and protected natural vegetation buffers designated as “Small Bird Flight Paths” on the development plats of several adjoining residential neighborhoods in the Barnwell Road area of Yulee.
Bob and his wife Lynn recently logged over 32,000 miles in their own Class “A” coach. They have visited and spent nights in more than 200 RV facilities from coast to coast, giving them a solid understanding of the needs of similar travelers and the attractiveness of a site such as Amelia Island.
Class “A” RVs and their needs
Unlike truck campers, pop-up trailers, and other towable RVs, Class “A” motor homes are much larger and more expensive vehicles, weighing from 15,000 to 30,000 pounds and ranging from 30 to 40 feet in length. They come equipped with all the luxuries of home, including kitchen and bathroom facilities, and can often sleep up to 8 people. Sometimes they tow a car, too, adding to the length of the vehicle. They do not come cheap, often costing in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Examples of these vehicles may be found on the website www.luxurycoaches.net.
Finding a spot to vacation in a vehicle this large can be problematic. The only campground on Amelia Island is in Fort Clinch State Park, where perhaps 30 sites are large enough to accommodate such vehicles. But Fort Clinch provides only four sites with 50 amp electric service, further limiting options for Class “A” RVs. A search of the website www.bigrigresorts.com yields only two parks in Jacksonville. These cater to family and kids, while Allison’s plan is to design his resort for adults and seniors.
Owners of vehicles like this look for places that resemble resorts as opposed to barebones campgrounds. And they are willing to pay for the experience. Allison’s resort will have a swimming pool, tennis courts, shuffleboard, croquet, horseshoes, badminton and volleyball.
Allison has planned 250 RV resort park sites and secure outdoor storage for approximately 100 Class “A” motor homes. Minimum site dimensions would be 40 feet wide by 80 feet long. Allison’s intention is to nestle sites into their wooded surroundings to both enhance visitors’ privacy and promote their appreciation of the natural beauty of Amelia Island. Many of the sites would have a long view of the western waterfront, enabling park visitors to enjoy spectacular sunsets. According to Allison, “There will be no wholesale land clearing … only grooming of the pristine natural forest that exists there.”
What’s in such a project for Fernandina Beach?
It is estimated that approximately 240 Class “A” motor homes pass the Amelia Island exit on Interstate 95 every day. This figure climbs to 400 per day during peak migration periods. Based on experience, Allison estimates that vacation spending for these vehicles averages $150 per coach per day. Allison plans to launch a billboard campaign to capture traffic off local Interstate highways. If the billboard campaign is successful and high rates of occupancy can be achieved, that spending will amount to around $40,000 per day on the local economy. At 60% occupancy (the 2010 state average for RV resorts of this type), the annual rental to the city of Fernandina Beach would be around $250,000. Because an RV resort is considered a lodging facility, all site rental revenues are subject to the 4% bed tax paid to the Amelia Island Tourist Development Council. All revenues including site rentals are subject to the local 7% sales tax.
Competing interests, balancing needs
One of the biggest sticking points to moving forward on Allison’s plan is finding a way to guarantee access and fair use of the currently leased property to the RV resort while not compromising the long term plan for the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport. Whether these challenges are so significant as to stop progress and cause Allison to seek another site (he has already considered 3 alternatives) remains to be seen.
Under the existing Airport Master Plan, Runway (RW) 4 will need to be extended by 700 feet in the next 5-10 years to allow increasing corporate jet traffic to take on larger quantities of fuel, enabling them to fly coast-to-coast or even to Ireland on one tank of gas. Extending the runway would also allow these planes to climb faster, lessening the noise factor. The runway extension could place aircraft operations too close to any road providing access to the area from the Amelia River Golf road, Allison’s current plan. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) regards RW 4 as the most critical runway. Compromising that runway in any way would seriously jeopardize the future of the airport to obtain grants and continuing operation.
But there may be another solution to access that would not cause heartburn for the FAA. As part of the city’s agreement with the developers of Crane Island, the developer planned to build a road that would extend from Bailey Road to Crane Island passing by the currently unused piece of land that Allison wants to develop.
What needs to be done?
Allison has spoken with City Manager Joe Gerrity and individual commissioners about his plan, as well as addressing the FBCC during a public meeting in December 2012. The city and the Nassau County Economic Development Board have both targeted the airport and surrounding area as economic development opportunity zones.
It is Allison’s desire to have this luxury RV resort open for business as early as November 2013 to take advantage of this year’s migratory season for snowbirds and other travelers. Between now and then lease details need to be worked out with the City of Fernandina Beach, site work including an access road needs to be completed, and site pads with power pedestals need to be built, in addition to amenities such as bathrooms and recreational facilities.
Fernandina Beach City Manager and Acting Airport Manager Joe Gerrity replied to a request for input by saying, “There are many issues and agencies that we need to work with in order to make this project work. Zoning needs to be addressed, and we need to get permission from the FAA and FDOT, just for starters.”
It remains to be seen whether the challenges can be overcome to make Bob Allison’s dream a reality.
January 23, 2013 3:50 p.m.