The development team currently converting the former Champions World Resort into workforce housing has been approved for a $1.125 million grant — the second major catalyst grant awarded by Osceola County’s W192 Development Authority.
Cornerstone Group and ICM Development, led by South Florida developer Carlos Balzola, have built a prolific portfolio of hotel and motel conversions along the tourism corridor, starting with the $40 million Red Lion Hotel conversion into the fully-leased Maingate Village apartments. Balzola and business partner T2 investments followed that with conversions of the former Baymont Inn —now pre-leasing — and Champions Village, located on 20 acres at 8660 W Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway.
Michelle Joyeux, director of acquisitions for ICM, told the Development Authority the conversion of the existing hotel started in 2021. The total project is split into three phases, with phase 1 comprising the hotel conversion, estimated to cost $39.85 million. When completed, the former hotel will offer 352 rental units offered to low- and moderate-income individuals at rents ranging from $1,000 to $1,400 per month.
Phase 2 will add a new 130-unit apartment building on the former sports field, estimated to cost $28.5 million. For Phase 3, the developer will demolish an 8,000-square-foot building at the front of the property and build new multi-tenant commercial buildings that could accommodate neighborhood retail services and restaurants.
Osceola County Economic Development Director Christina Morris told the board the first phase of the project is not eligible for the catalyst grant. The future phases, however, scored 85 out of 100 points to qualify for up to 75% of the maximum $1.5 million grant.
“This particular incentive is only for new construction,” she said. “So a lot of what Carlos has done with Phase 1 of Champions Village and Maingate and West Bay is existing construction. So really, you’ll see that they estimate spending $72 million. We did our impact analysis just on the new construction, which is why we get $43 million.”
The new building would be five stories over ground-level parking with interior corridors, balconies and elevator service.
In Balzola’s conversion projects, the majority of units are studio apartments, balanced by a small percentage of one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. The new construction will feature a more traditional development mix, with only three studios per floor, according to the preliminary design. The most common floorplans will be one-bedroom and two-bedroom units, with the largest corner units at 900 square feet.
Joyeux said they plan to submit a Site Development Plan for the future phases in October and hope to start construction on Phases 2 and 3 in the first and second quarters of 2023, respectively. The target completion date would be in 2024.
“We believe this to be a very realistic schedule,” Joyeux said.
Several board members have toured Maingate Village and praised Balzola and his partners for the quality of the construction, particularly the extra investment they made to rewire each unit and install separate meters — something the county now requires in all hotel conversions.
“They’re very nice apartments,” board member Hector Lizasuain said. “This is not something that they just threw together. And the commitment they made to pull all utilities out and put in individual meters — that solved another issue of third-party leasing where people were collecting rents and not paying utilities.”
The W192DA created the catalyst grant program in 2021 and seeded it with $2.5 million per year to create an incentive for high-quality, private investment in the tourism corridor. So far, the agency has awarded one grant to Sternon Group for its 208-unit Fortune Star condominium project on Lake Wilson.