By BERNADETTE BERDYCHOWSKI, Tampa Bay Times
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — People keep asking Tony Miller exactly when he’ll open his Tampa Bay surf park project.
He doesn’t have an answer yet.
Peak Surf Park, a first-of-its-kind attraction for a region with a lack of surfable waves, was announced earlier this year with much buzz. It will use a 30-ton “Mad Max plunger” device in the center of a pool made by Australian company Surf Lakes to create swells and a man-made beach. It has the ability to send out waves for beginner, intermediate, expert or pro surfers at the same time from different sections of the pool.
But so far, Miller — who has a background in marketing — hasn’t done a whole lot of developing the surf park. In fact, he doesn’t have a location. As Tampa Bay has grabbed the attention of real estate developers around the country, it’s been no easy feat to compete for the 30 acres of space needed for the park.
Many developers typically refrain from announcing new attractions to an area until details like a site and financing are set in stone. Miller told the Tampa Bay Times he had to get the word out first to help get the community, and potential investors, on board.
“It’s such a new thing,” Miller, 55, said. “I needed people early on to understand what it is.”
The Tampa Bay area has become very competitive, Miller said, as developers are trying to get in on the hottest housing market in the U.S. That 30 acres Miller needs for the surf park is about the same size many real estate investors are looking for to build housing complexes. If he could build up hype, he said, it could help give him an edge for a seller to choose his site over another out-of-state real estate investor.
When asked when he would like to close on a location for the park, Miller chuckled.
“Yesterday,” he said. “Really as soon as possible, because everything dominos from that point.”
Peak Surf Park is expected to attract 800,000 visitors yearly, according to an economic impact study by consultancy group Hotel & Leisure Advisors, and generate $1.3 billion in business over a decade. The study found the attraction could make a $50 million profit in its first year. Construction alone would cost between $60 to $100 million, contributing about $30 million to the local economy.
While most wave pools push water toward a wall, like Tampa’s Adventure Island, Surf Lakes’ technology takes inspiration from a ripple of water and uses the plunger device to push 10 waves of varying sizes toward a beach. Surf Lakes has more than a dozen locations in development globally, with a handful across the U.S. including California, Texas, Tennessee and South Carolina.
Miller discovered surfing when he moved to Tampa from Philadelphia at age 15. He said he would drive across the state to Cocoa Beach to surf with friends. He later ran a marketing and advertising agency for 15 years before working in mergers and acquisitions. While networking, he met an Australian man who mentioned he was helping raise money for Surf Lakes. It piqued Miller’s interest.
He knew other surf parks had failed, like the Ron Jon Surfpark in Orlando, which shut down in 2008 after it became too costly to fix issues with its wave pool. But Miller said Surf Lakes has advanced the technology to create an experience both more natural and appealing to surfers.
“It’s not a demand issue. Now it’s not a technology issue, so I think that we’re past that kind of hurdle,” Miller said. “So really, it becomes an execution issue.”
He secured licensing rights from the Australian company to build the park under his own branding with space for retail, restaurants and potentially non-water activities like rock climbing walls and a ropes course.
So where would the surf park go in Tampa Bay?
“I would like the site to feel as much as it can as part of nature.” Miller said. “A lot of people say ‘Why would you put a surf park close to the beach?’ and I think that’s kind of faulty thinking. One, we don’t have a lot of waves here period.”
Not only does the “vibe” of the place matter, Miller said, but he also has to pay special attention to the geology underground and how much water is in the soil to build the wave pool.
Miller said he narrowed down his search to two sites: one in St. Petersburg and another in Pasco County. But there’s no guarantee either will work out.
The undisclosed St. Petersburg location is his top choice. Miller said he’s close to securing it after being in discussions with the property owner for a year and a half. It would be within a mixed-use project by another developer and has the advantage of being in one of the Tampa Bay’s densest cities.
The other option is in Pasco County within a master-planned community. That would make it similar to the crystal lagoons that are the centerpiece of Metro Development Group’s Epperson and Mirada neighborhoods. Pasco isn’t as dense as St. Petersburg, but Miller said it has the benefit of a fast-growing population of families.
Locking in a spot will depend on what those developers want within their projects.
The struggle for many attractions is finding land where there are potential customers nearby. Where there’s a lot of land, there aren’t many people, and vice versa, said Justin Greider, head of Florida retail for commercial real estate firm JLL.
But projects like this are in high demand since the COVID-19 pandemic paused development. And consumers are looking to spend more on experiences, Greider said.
“We’ve seen (attractions) coming back but it’s very much in the infancy,” Greider said. “There’s a lot of people experimenting to see what is going to catch and how to make it work. A number of concepts use this kind of strategy where they have the idea and not the location and sort of need to match up with a developer who needs an anchor or a flagship piece to market their development around.”
Epperson’s Crystal Lagoon in Wesley Chapel, a 7.5 acre man-made pool surrounded by beaches, was the first of its kind in the U.S. when it debuted in 2018. Earlier this year, Hillsborough County approved a third lagoon by Metro Development that will have public access.
Peak Surf Park is set to amp up what the crystal lagoons started as a neighborhood amenity and general attraction.
“It’s like saying, ‘Hey, we’re gonna put in the middle of this giant master-planned community this really cool putting green’ versus ‘We’re gonna drop Top Golf right in the middle of it.’” Miller said. “It’s just on a whole different scale.”
Once a location is secured, it could still take years before the surf park is built. Miller still needs additional financing and permits. Supply chain issues and labor shortages have inflated prices for construction. With projects like this, JLL’s Greider said they’re at risk of losing their luster the longer it takes.
When asked if he considered whether the surf park might never happen, Miller said no.
“I recognize there’s 100 different ways it could fail. It is a big project. But I think the technology that we have, the market that we’re in, my determination behind it, and the enthusiasm that I’ve heard from investors and other key stakeholders, no, I don’t,” Miller said. “I will never think it’s going to fail until it’s successful.”
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