Built in 1950, the Gulf Beach Resort Motel was one of the first motels on Lido Key, part of the post-World War II motel construction boom that catered to Sarasota's growing tourism industry. In January, it was purchased for $23.5 million by the Ronto Group, a Naples-based development firm, which plans to replace it with a beachfront luxury condominium tower. Ronto has not yet filed permits for number of units or building height, but according to Sarasota Building Department records, a demolition permit is pending approval.
The salmon-colored, two-story resort operated for nearly two decades as a motel and was converted in 1977 into condominiums. In 2003, it was designated a historic landmark by the City of Sarasota’s Historic Preservation Board. Today, it is made up of 43 one-bedroom apartments; each is unique but offers a full kitchen and sleeps up to six. In one, pink kitchen tiles and mint green bathroom tiles make the unit feel like someone hid the rotary phone. Fans of mid-century decor can still cook in one of the motel’s kitchens and reminisce about the days when linoleum was considered an optimal countertop finish.
Florida native Ronnel “Ronni,” Jones bought her first unit in 1983 for $46,000. Even though she lives on Longboat Key, her home is on a canal, and she “couldn’t press her toes into the sand or float in the Gulf,” she says. The motel was her beach getaway, a way to host her visiting family, and a vacation rental that earned her supplemental income. The motel unit owners, many of whom had owned for decades had passed their units to their children, reconnected every winter season and become a community.
“We had a lot of parties at the tiki hut, and every November had buffet tables set up with Popeye’s [fried chicken], which was a real treat for people who lived in California or Canada. It was a place for people to meet up. We were almost wiped out three times by red tide, beach erosion and then Covid. We were a small business fighting to stay alive,” Jones says.
In 1997, Jones, then the president of the Gulf Beach Owners Association, helped designate the motel a historic landmark to keep it safe from demolition. “One of the unit owners was a developer and kept trying to buy us out, so we wanted to protect it,” she says.
But in 2021, the motel’s humble charm turned into pricey upkeep, and the costs associated with bringing the units up to current code compliance were too steep.
Last July, the city’s Historic Preservation Board voted 5 to 1 to demolish the structure. At the appropriation meeting, Brenda Patten, a land-use attorney working on behalf of the motel unit owners, said, “In 2003, the City Commission designated the motel as historic. Then it was in reasonable condition. What seemed like a good idea then has become a nightmare for unit owners.” Patten pointed out that the motel's amenities fell short of what the market demanded for an upscale clientele. Meanwhile, current renters just wanted a good deal. “Most of the renters who check into the Gulf Beach Motel are looking for bargain rents. They’re not there for the historic value or nostalgia," she explained.
According to a presentation the Ronto Group shared with the Lido Key Residents Association during a Gulf Beach community workshop on Nov. 6, plans for the proposed luxury condominium include a residents-only bistro, yoga studio, fitness center and social rooms.
Carl Shoffstall, president of the Lido Key Residents Association, says, “The hotel was past its prime. It was too much to renovate it. The consensus was more people were ok with (demolishing) it than not. I’m personally for it, and it's going to up the property values.”
It’s not the first time the Ronto Group has purchased a historic landmark in Sarasota. The 18-story Echelon Condominium, now known as 624 Palm, replaced bed-and-breakfasts La Palme Royale and The Cypress in downtown Sarasota. La Palme Royale was originally a home built in the 1920s and was designated a historic property because of its association with turn-of-the-century developer Owen Burns and his wife. The Cypress was a 74-year-old home-turned-inn before it sold.
The Gulf Beach Resort Motel transaction took about two years to complete since the developer needed to negotiate with 28 separate owners, says Eliot Rose of Coldwell Banker, who handled the sale.
But for the moment, it’s beachy business as usual at the Gulf Beach Resort Motel. You can still rent a Gulf-front, one-bedroom apartment with a full kitchen that sleeps up to six, for just $333.63 a night during high-demand February dates. According to the helpful woman who answered the phone, it’s open until the end of May.