When the Hotel Icona Diamond Beach opened two weeks ago, it fulfilled a dream of waterfront developer Eustace Mita, CEO of Achristavest and of Icona Investment Group, both of Chester, Pa.
Mita had been coming to the Jersey Shore his whole life, but he didn’t discover the Diamond Beach section of Lower Town-ship — just north of Cape May and south of Wildwood Crest — until a little more than a decade ago.
“It was six blocks of the most beautiful beach town I’d ever seen ... with only two eyesores,” Mita said Thursday.
The first eyesore — the five-story Grand Hotel — he purchased in 2003, tore down and built the 12-story, 120-unit condominium complex The Grand at Diamond Beach in 2009.
The second, the old Pier 6600 motel, Mita purchased in 2005 and operated it under that name for seven years while building The Grand at Diamond Beach and making plans for the area’s finishing piece.
Now, with the completion of the $20 million Hotel Icona — bringing investment by Mita, his companies and partners in Diamond Beach to nearly a quarter-billion dollars — he has realized his vision for the upscale community.
Mita said his concept for the ultra-lux hotel began with a gleaming white exterior such as the hotels of Miami Beach, a popular destination for the North Jersey/New York residents who are the core demographic for Diamond Beach. The firm brought in Blanche Garcia, of B.Garcia Design in Montclair, Essex County, and the designer on the Travel Channel’s “Hotel Impossible” show.
Keeping the shell of the cement building, the Achrist-avest team built new floors, walls and ceilings, transforming the previous 120 units into 100 two-room suites. Mita said an additional eight suites were built, with the 108 units ranging from 650 to 900 square feet.
Each has its own air conditioning and heat, a kitchen with granite, upscale baths and hurricane glass sliders, he said. Sprinklers were added throughout the building to conform to current code.
He said 105 of the suites are oceanfront, overlooking 425 feet of a private beach and an outdoor pool. On the roof there is a fitness center with fabulous views.
The hotel includes an elegant restaurant, Coastal Blue Oceanside Grill, with breakfast, lunch and dinner menus created and overseen by chef Al Paris, who has operated award-winning restaurants in Philadelphia and Atlantic City.
Hotel Icona also boasts a 6,000-square-foot sundeck, which enhances the facility’s appeal as a wedding venue. “We have our own beach, a gazebo and for the reception the deck is big enough for 300 people,” Mita said.
He said Hotel Icona was developed solely by Achrist-avest, unlike The Grand at Diamond Beach, done in partnership with the Carlyle Group private equity firm.
While The Grand was an architectural and development success that has become a landmark at the shore, he said, for the developers it was “a financial disaster.” After the real estate market collapsed during construction, units sold for below cost, “but we stuck to our plans and now only three units are left.”
The downturn saw the number of hotels and motels in Cape May County fall from 258 in 2005 to 219 last year, federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. Total payroll for county hotels has started to bounce back from a low of $44.6 million in 2010 to $48.8 million last year.
Hotel Icona will hold its grand opening celebration Aug. 22.
Mita said that once state approvals are secured, Achristavest expects to convert the Icona to a condo hotel with privately owned and optionally rented units.
“It will be the Icona Resort & Condominium,” he said.
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