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Lake County ranch sells for $3.4M to reform school operator

Lake County ranch sells for $3.4M to reform school operator
The former Thousand Oaks Ranch, formerly owned by disgraced DeLand businessman Stephen DeLuca, will soon open as the Hope Forest Academy serving at-risk youth. (Lake County Property Appraiser)

A dormant central Florida sports camp is about to be repurposed as a residential school serving young non-violent male offenders.

Rite of Passage, a Nevada-based organization that provides a diverse spectrum of care to troubled, at-risk and vulnerable youth, will open Hope Forest Academy in Paisley in northern Lake County within two weeks, said a regional official of the company.

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Rite of Passage acquired the property for $3.4 million, according to documents filed in April with Lake County. The deal comes with a $2.7 million mortgage to MidFirst Bank of Oklahoma City.

“I look at this as a true blessing,” said Michael Cantrell, Rite of Passage’s executive director for the southeastern United States. “We are changing the trajectory of these kids’ lives, and challenging them to think differently about their futures. An environment like this is going to work a lot better compared to other environments.”

Rite of Passage will operate the school under a contract with the state Department of Juvenile Justice. It has the required permissions from the Lake County Board of Commissioners and the school district. The academy now needs to pass minor inspections.

Hope Forest Academy will host no more than 42 youths with a staff of 43. The property will not be walled or fenced off. “We’re not interested in running a jailhouse, we’re interested in running a schoolhouse,” Cantrell said.

The 40-acre site has 20 buildings, two lakes, a pool, three fully-equipped gyms, football and soccer fields and other amenities.

The property was previously known as the Thousand Oaks Ranch, owned by Stephen DeLuca, a former DeLand businessman currently serving 6 ½ years in federal prison in Ohio after his conviction on wire fraud charges.

DeLuca once owned 50 gas stations, including 22 Fina Express Marts, along with bulk storage facilities and dozens of other properties. He is a former president of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America.

According to the trade publication Convenience Store Products, federal charges were brought in 2011 when a private finance firm, CapitalSource LLC of Los Angeles, accused DeLuca of using fake invoices to inflate the value of his company, DeLand-based Delco Oil Inc. Delco eventually received $18 million in loans.

Convenience Store Products also reported that DeLuca spent some CapitalSource funding to establish an “All-Star Sports Camp” business venture at Thousand Oaks Ranch.

When his businesses collapsed, another developer proposed an elite soccer camp on the site. That plan also foundered.

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There will be no new construction on the site, Cantrell said, noting the camp already provides “everything we need.”

“With what we do for a living, it has to be a specialty property, and ones like this are few and far between,” he said. “Not just in Florida, but around the country.”

Rite of Passage also has facilities in DeFuniak Springs, Greenville and Jasper in Florida and helps 2,000 youth in 15 other states.

Between the sports amenities, a rope course, and even horse stalls, “If these kids are bored, it will be the adults’ fault,” Cantrell said.

“But beyond that, and more importantly, treatment, education and family work will be going on at the same time. It’s a holistic approach to a normalized environment for these kids.”

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at Newsroom@GrowthSpotter.com or (407) 420-6261. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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