Once-troubled Florida resort has a new strategy: Go more expensive, more exclusive

The once-troubled Banyan Cay Resort & Golf in West Palm Beach, Florida, is being recast into an exclusive golf club for wealthy Palm Beach and West Palm Beach residents who want to hit the greens near their pricey coastal homes —and are willing to pay big money to do it.

Banyan Cay golf is now known as Dutchman’s Pipe Golf Club. The name is derived from a flowering vine that is favored by swallowtail butterflies.

“If you live in Palm Beach island or West Palm Beach, minutes from your home you have a brand-new golf experience,” said Alex Witkoff, co-chief executive of the Witkoff Group of New York, one of the property’s new owners.

The golf course is just east of Interstate 95, off Congress Avenue and north of Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, near the Tanger Outlets shopping mall.

Witkoff touts Dutchman’s Pipe as the only new golf course east of I-95 in West Palm Beach in 25 years, a location just minutes from well-heeled residents in Palm Beach or West Palm Beach.

Convenience and luxury have their price. Initiation fees for Dutchman’s Pipe will range from $300,000 to $350,000, Witkoff said.

To attract these upscale club members, Dutchman’s Pipe’s existing Jack Nicklaus Signature Course, built only seven years ago, is being redone to make it more attractive and better to play.

There are also plans to transform Dutchman’s Pipe into a “holistic retreat” in the heart of the city, with a globally-recognized chef helming three restaurants. Fitness and wellness amenities will be built at the club and resort, which also will be completed by the site’s new owners.

As for former members of the Banyan Cay club, they are out of luck. Their memberships and fees were wiped away in the bankruptcy filing.

Former club member Rick Cerone said some members have joined Eastpointe Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens or play at The Park, West Palm Beach’s new public course.

Palm Beach West, the new playground for the rich

Witkoff’s plans for the former Banyan Cay reflect the continued transformation of West Palm Beach into an extension of Palm Beach, a trend that first earned the city the nickname “Palm Beach West” during the COVID pandemic.

Since the Banyan Cay resort hotel and club first was announced in 2015, the demand for upscale hotels has dramatically increased, especially with the wealth migration to Palm Beach County during the pandemic.

But plans by Witkoff and its partners elevate the hotel and adjoining golf course to a different, rarified level of luxury, akin to the exclusive Breakers Palm Beach resort and club, where club initiation fees reportedly also cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Dutchman’s Pipe’s owners are experienced operators of luxury hotels, residences and clubs.

Dutchman’s Pipe is owned by Witkoff Group, Access Industries of New York and London; and PPG Development of Hallandale Beach.

Witkoff and PPG are behind South Florida’s newest luxury golf club, the Shell Bay Club in Hallandale Beach, formerly the Diplomat Golf Resort & Spa. Access Industries is a global investment firm led by Len Blavatnik, who has previously invested in major projects in Miami Beach.

Witkoff said West Palm Beach is entering a new level of affluence.

During the past three years, parts of the downtown have become crowded with upscale restaurants, many of them from New York; luxurious new condominiums built or planned; and steel-and-glass office towers stuffed with perks typically seen in boutique hotels.

These developments, in turn, have attracted hospitality operators to West Palm Beach who have opened or plan to open private membership social clubs typically built in major cities such as New York, London and Miami. One new club already is open in West Palm Beach, and two more clubs are planned for downtown.

In addition, old West Palm Beach neighborhoods wedged between Flagler Drive and Dixie Highway are sought after by homebuyers who want an in-town location. The demand has supercharged home sales to seven and even eight-figure sales.

Witkoff also pointed to the surge of super-wealthy residents who have snapped up homes in Palm Beach.

The trend continues. During the first quarter of 2024, the median sales price of a single-family home in Palm Beach was $12.5 million, up 54 percentage points from the same period last year, according to Corcoran, a real estate brokerage.

The Jack Nicklaus-designed Banyan Cay Golf Course, part of a larger development in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Courtesy of Banyan Cay Resort & Club)

Plans for Dutchman’s Pipe and the unfinished resort

Witkoff said the new ownership group will complete the 150-room resort hotel, which will open in the fall.

The hotel remains only partly built, even though by now it was supposed to be a lushly landscaped Destination by Hyatt property, featuring a fitness center, pool, cabanas, tennis center, tiki hut and spa, plus meeting space.

The unfinished hotel has been a years-long eyesore for residents in the nearby Lands of the President community, many of whom own condominium units that overlook the hotel or the golf course.

The 250-acre Banyan Cay property used to be the site of the President Country Club, which fell into financial trouble and was sold to an investor group for $11 million in 2011. That investor group then flipped the property to Banyan CayDev LLC, led by Domenic Gatto Jr., for $26 million in 2015.

Gatto opened the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course in 2017, but work on the resort hotel stopped, started and then stopped again.

In 2022, lender Calmwater Capital sued to foreclose on the property and sought repayment of $85 million in loans. The parent company behind the construction of Banyan Cay Resort & Club then filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, where it tried to sell the property to another owner. The deal fell apart at the last minute, however, and the lender took control.

Witkoff and partners acquired the property in January for an undisclosed amount, scoring a $75 million loan from Calmwater Capital.

The former Banyan Cay Resort under construction June 7, 2022 in West Palm Beach. (Meghan McCarthy/Palm Beach Post/USA Today Network)

A better, more lushly landscaped golf course

With financial troubles dogging the property in the past couple of years, the once-pristine golf course was neglected.

Witkoff closed the course on Jan. 15 and started a redo. Now the greens are being refurbished in anticipation of a reopening in the fall.

In addition to fresh grass for the golf course, the new owners also are adding a new practice facility, new berms and a new bunker. Astroturf also is being added to buffer edges to maintain a strong course shape. And some holes are being reshaped to increase “quality of play,” Witkoff said.

Even the driving range is being redone so that golfers will be able to hit a ball more than 300 yards.

Golf memberships are being offered by invitation only at first. Social memberships will be made available in the future, Witkoff said.

There will be plenty of perks for club members.

Not only will the resort feature tennis courts but it also will have courts for pickleball and padel, a mix between tennis and squash.

Three dining venues — including a members-only grill and poolside al fresco dining led by Chef Julian Jouhannaud, formerly of Anabel’s London and Le Bilboquet — will offer “world-class” fare. Meanwhile, health and wellness amenities will include personal training, a day spa, and event space.

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek