An affiliate of Canadian developer Everest Group of Companies has paid $34 million for a 217-acre tract near Disney, activating plans for North America’s first Muslim-friendly resort.
The Grand Medina Resort & Spa Orlando would be Osceola County’s first five-star resort. CEO Zafir Rashid told GrowthSpotter the project would add 3,000 luxury rooms and villas, a full service spa, water park and a mix of retail uses.
“We’re very excited to close on the property,” he said Wednesday, explaining that the price included the $13.9 million for the land plus the entitlements and permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
It’s located at the southwest quadrant of the U.S. 192 - S.R. 429 interchange, about a half-mile west of Margaritaville Resort Orlando and minutes from the Disney theme parks.
Everest will break the project up into multiple phases, separating the public section from the gated resort. The first phase will be a mixed-use project fronting on W192 that could include two multifamily communities with ground-floor retail, commercial and retail spaces, and a hotel pad.
The private resort will have multiple hotels on site, including a convention hotel with meeting and banquet space to accommodate 2,500 people. It will be open to people of all faiths. Rashid said it will be alcohol-free and will offer an interfaith prayer space and women-only pool.
“I want it to be more inclusive – not exclusive to Muslims," he said. “There is a desire from people of different faiths for a place where they have more privacy and modesty. We want to focus on women and have a very high-end women’s spa.”
He said the market would dictate whether the resort dining options are strictly halal, or if they offer halal, vegan and kosher options.
“One of the biggest challenges of being Muslim is the food,” he said. “Cross contamination with pork is a big thing. There are some Muslins who are fine with it not being halal, but they still won’t eat pork.”
The resort would have a private water park, with a wave pool, slides and a lazy river. Rashid said he hopes to add a Crystal Lagoon with its own beach, as well. He’s not concerned about competition from the H2O Live! water park at Margaritaville because the amenity at Grand Medina would be strictly for resort guests, and it will be alcohol-free.
“As a Muslim, when you’re traveling, alcohol makes us feel a little bit uncomfortable,” he said. “Our religion has instilled these values. There’s a larger audience than Muslims who this will appeal to.”
The plan will be to develop the mixed-use commercial village first. Rashid calls it the “low hanging fruit” and said the company is open to joint ventures for the retail, multifamily and hotel projects. He envisions up to 600 multifamily units, divided between two communities, with ground floor commercial uses.
Everest announced the first Grand Medina resort just north of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic prior to the Kissimmee site, but Rashid said that project has been held up in permitting. So the company is accelerating work on the Florida project.
He said the company hopes to break ground in spring 2020 and plans to invest up to $700 million on the development. “We want to build as quickly as possible,” he said. “I think we’re looking at 6-8 years to develop the entire parcel. If the absorption is there, and if we develop commercial and resort on parallel tracks, we could do it five years.”
Experience Kissimmee CEO DT Minich said the firm is thrilled to learn that the project is moving forward. “This will be the first 5-star product we have in Osceola County from a hotel standpoint,” he said. “It’s a huge opportunity.”
Minich noted that Emirates Air just celebrated the fourth anniversary of its direct service to Orlando International Airport. “We’ve been working that market ever since,” he said. “It has tremendous potential, expecially with that Dubai link.”
The reach goes well beyond the UAE. Having a halal, Muslim-friendly resort in the Orlando market can open the region to tourists from all over the world. Minich said EK will market the property broadly, as a 5-star resort, and will conduct targeted marketing to niche audiences.
“As an orginazation, we’ve really moved into targeted marketing for different age groups, demographics and cultures," Minich said. “We will do some niche marketing and get some good imagery that really speaks to what the property is. So we’ll be fully ready to market it on both levels.”
The site had been under contract twice before in recent years, including one buyer who had a $20 million commitment from the county to build a sports complex. Christina Morris, executive director of Osceola’s W192 Development Authority, said she wondered back in May if this deal would close.
“When I first read about it, I was thinking it’ll be great – if it comes,” Morris said. “To have a 5-star resort on the corridor is amazing. It speaks to where we are and what we’ve done, and it will help us get more quality investment than we’ve seen in the past.”
The project did receive backlash earlier this summer from some right-wing, anti-Muslim bloggers who tried to link Rashid and the project to terrorism. Rashid, who was born and raised in Canada, said the episode was painful and made him question if the Orlando market was ready for Muslim-friendly resort. He said Everest is a diverse company made up of people of all faiths.
“I’m totally against the hardliners and the people who have manipulated our religion,” he said. “We’re open to anybody and everybody coming in. We want to be inclusive.”
Everest is working with David Portwood, president of Davenport Consulting Group, and Kimley-Horn and Terracon for the engineering and geotechnical work. Spanish firm, Arquiestudio, is collaborating on the resort design and theming. Rashid said the architects and development teams for the commercial village would be selected in consultation with the future JV partners. The developer sourced a $17.18 million mortgage from TIG Romspun.