Conquering the beachfront
“We saw the property, we saw the location, we saw the beach . . . we bought the property.” Those neo-Shakespearian words were expressed recently by Keith St. Clair – businessman, entrepreneur, and travel industry magnate, who once owned Florida’s largest independent travel distribution company, a top-10 national enterprise with revenues of $550 million. They refer to the ESL Azul, the newest possession and project of this innovative and seasoned hotel executive who has firmly planted his flag on beautiful Isla Verde Beach on Puerto Rico’s northern shore.
“Two months ago, Isla Verde Beach was voted the number one urban beach in the hemisphere,” St. Clair remarks about the prime location of the rechristened and reconditioned ESJ Azul, and soon to be the site of a new ESJ-branded mega-resort, as well, complete with a reconditioned beach boardwalk. “It beat out Waikiki Beach, Venice Beach, Newport Beach, South Beach, and Miami Beach, by the readers of USA Today.”
The ESJ Azul, formerly the ESJ Tower, was originally built in 1975 as a mixed-use building. “Part hotel, part vacation ownership/timeshare, and part whole-owners, who owned the condos,” St. Clair continues. “And that model has sustained for 40 years. But in the previous 39 years, until we bought it last June, very little had been done. We commenced a pretty aggressive remodeling campaign. We did all 17 stories: new walls and landings; we put in new LED lighting, carpeting, and remodeled all the common areas, the meeting rooms, the bars, etc. We remodeled the old restaurant, put in a new bar, and remodeled all of the lobby. We opened up the beach access; we created a vacation-ownership sales desk; we created a games room for children. And now we’re doing the rooms, taking five or ten rooms out of commission at a time and remodeling them.”
By the time the ESJ Azul’s renovations are complete, St. Clair’s investment group will have spent $12 million on this 450-unit building containing a mix of studio apartments and one-, two-, and three-bedroom suites. “There are more rooms in that building than in any hotel on that strip in Puerto Rico,” he says enthusiastically. Out of the 450 total rooms, 170 are timeshared among the property’s 5,000 timeshare members.
But putting the finishing touches on the ESJ Azul will hardly be the end of St. Clair’s hotel projects. “We have plans to develop two more ESJs,” he says. “We’re building a new hotel next door – the ESJ Verde and, on the point (Punta El Medio), next to the hotel, which is a magnificent piece of property, we’re building a third ESJ hotel, the ESJ Noir. What we’re creating is an ESJ collection resort with approximately 700 rooms in three properties. It will be the first of its kind in Puerto Rico. We’ll be breaking ground on the first property in October and we’re hoping to break ground on the second in January or February, next year, with both properties in delivery in 2018.”
When all three ESJ properties are up and running, St. Clair will oversee half the exclusive real estate on Isla Verde beachfront’s Hotel Row. “There are only four at the moment and there will be six,” he says, “The Intercontinental, The El San Juan, my first hotel, the next two, and The Ritz-Carleton. The El San Juan, next door, is having a $50 million face lift at the moment, so at the end of the day, it’s a great neighborhood with pretty high-end neighbors. We’re four stars – the first two – but the one we’re building on the point will be a five- or six-star hotel – a unique landmark property. It’s going to be very, very interesting.”
A mere few years ago, British-born, American citizen, Keith St. Clair, came to Puerto Rico with a vision and vast experience in travel and tourism. Today, he is a permanent resident of territory, having taken advantage, in 2015, of the island government’s three year-old Act 22, the Individual Investors Act, a law designed to attract high net worth investors to Puerto Rico by providing complete tax exceptions on dividends, interest, and capital gains, so long as the individual is present in Puerto Rico for at least 183 days a year. “I am living in Isla Verde, building in Isla Verde, and investing in Isla Verde,” says St. Clair of his newfound home.
And while hoping to reap the economic benefits of his nascent, hotel empire, St. Clair is not unmindful that his projects and investments will also help spur Puerto Rico’s tourism sector, turning it into a stronger engine of economic development and job creation. “It is our goal, through this project and others that are in development, to create at least 1,000 direct jobs,” he states. “I want to make a difference, not just in the renaissance of Isla Verde but of Puerto Rico. We have a tremendous opportunity to make a contribution.”
Keith St. Clair – he came, he saw, and he bought. The next several years will ultimately determine if he will conquer.
AT A GLANCE
WHO: ESJ Azul
WHAT: A landmark hotel on Isla Verde Beach
WHERE: Isla Verde, Puerto Rico
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