In a bid to attract more tourism dollars from nearby Los Angeles, city officials in Simi Valley are pinning their hopes on the development of a five-star hotel at Hummingbird Nest Ranch. But the developer behind the 126-acre ranch says the largest component of the resort development hinges on how well the early phases go and whether the owner can find a suitable hotel operator.
It’s possible that a hotel will never be built at all.
“Right now I think the hotel is more a dream than a reality in the short term,” said Dean Kunicki, the developer overseeing the project for ranch owner David Saperstein, the Texas billionaire who made his fortune through Metro Networks. “We can operate and be financially solvent without that going in. But it’d be a great asset, and if the ranch develops the way we hope it does and we’re getting the volume of business coming in, in the end we’ll be more attractive to one of the [hotel] firms.”
The ranch is at the center of Simi Valley’s tourism efforts. The city recently passed a tourism tax district and rezoning approvals for the historic redevelopment. Both moves are part of a larger effort to make Simi Valley more attractive as a drive-to destination for the Los Angeles market.
“We do have a draw here, and one thing we have in terms of the metro L.A. area — we’re close. People can get here easily and right off the freeway. Boom, you’re there,” said Simi Valley Mayor Bob Huber.
But Simi Valley doesn’t have a five-star hotel, and officials hope the Hummingbird project will be successful enough for developers to build one.
“We’re trying to make it happen from our standpoint,” Huber said. “[The ranch] is a gorgeous property. It’s been here forever … and part of the thought in all this was, ‘We have a world class museum. Why can’t we have a five-star hotel?’ ”
Simi Valley is home to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, one of the region’s most popular attractions with close to 500,000 visitors a year. The city also hosts Skatelab, an indoor skatepark and museum and another popular attraction, but Simi Valley has consistently flown under the radar as a tourism hub and event center.
Without a five-star hotel and ancillary amenities, the city struggles to compete with the nearby Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village. The property, owned by Dole Food Co. CEO Dave Murdock, is a magnet for convention business and wealthy L.A. acolytes looking to hide out and take advantage of the adjoining California Health & Longevity Institute.
But the developers of Hummingbird Nest believe the opportunity to turn an already profitable wedding, film industry and equestrian property into a full-scale resort is a solid prospect with even better profit margins.
“Ten years ago when [the owner] and I did this original project, it was built as a Grand Prix equestrian jumping facility. At the time that was a real interest to the family, but times change,” Kunicki said. “When we were doing that project, the owner and I spoke about what we would ever do with [the property] down the road if the equestrian things doesn’t go the direction we want it to go.”
Several ideas were floated, including the thought of turning the ranch into an exclusive men’s club. Those ideas eventually died on the vine, and the ranch remained a private retreat.
But when the equestrian revenue stream fell flat, followed by an extremely expensive divorce for Saperstein, Kunicki got the green light to start sizing up the options. He eventually put together the plan for a three-phase build out of a resort-style project.
Wedding, film revenue
It’s an ambitious project and there’s no budget yet. But Kunicki pointed out that Saperstein’s deep pockets mean they won’t need to turn to bank financing.
The property currently earns revenue by hosting weddings and other private parties. It’s also a popular filming location.
Kunicki said last year the ranch hosted more than 60 weddings and film crews are constantly renting whole portions of the grounds for weeks at a time. But there is potential for a steadier stream of revenue, he said. “[The tourism industry] is pumping up and we’ve already got a lot name recognition out here,” Kunicki said. “It doesn’t hurt that the overall economy is doing better and people are looking for a place like this again.”
Phased build out
The ranch needs access to more water and electrical power to support its build out. An additional 1 million-gallon tank will be installed, as well as additional solar panels to complement a large-scale array that sustains the ranch in the daytime, Kunicki said.
After that, the project will be developed in phases to minimize disruption to the ranch’s existing wedding and filming business.
“The first two phases we’d like to get done as soon as possible,” Kunicki said. “The last phase is the hotel.”
If a hotel is built, the ranch will likely bring in an outside firm to develop and manage the property, he said. Hummingbird Nest has been in informal talks with several brands it thinks will fit the bill, but Kunicki said all are still looking several years out and not ready to commit.
The Simi Valley of Chamber Commerce hopes development of a resort at Hummingbird Nest will eventually contribute to the city’s newly established tourism marketing district.
With limited marketing resources, Simi Valley hotels recently asked the city to create the district, which adds a 2 percent fee to nightly hotel rates. The funds then flow to the Simi Valley Tourism Alliance, a tourism marketing group operated under the umbrella of the chamber. Hoteliers say the district will raise more than $230,000 annually.
“The entire Simi Valley community will benefit as the funds generated from the lodging establishments are then used to market tourism inside and outside of Simi Valley, bringing in revenues to help maintain city streets, enhance public safety budgets and bring tax revenues into the local economy,” Leigh Nixon, president and CEO of the chamber, said in a statement.
The new funding resource will ensure Simi Valley’s longevity and sustainability as a destination, she said.
A CLOSER LOOK: The project
The project consists of both commercial and resort style uses that include a new two-story hotel building with 105 units with two levels of subterranean parking, a total of 59 single, duplex, and triplex buildings with 98 casitas vacation units, restaurants, swimming pools, a conference center, recreation facilities, spas, a surgical center with 16 rehab rooms and host of other amenities.
The existing main villa is also slated for redevelopment as a boutique hotel and is part of the project’s first phase, which also includes converting a barn into a convention center that seats up to 1,000 guests.