April 13, 2024
Big Fish
Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris is building a “Johnny Morris Signature Resort” on two islands, one known as Valhalla Island or Crawl Key, and the other neighboring Grassy Key.

Photo: Wesley Hamilton/Springfield Business Journal

Big Fish
Johnny Morris started selling fishing tackle at his father's liquor store in 1972. The Brown Derby was his only location for 13 years.

Photo: Bass Pro Shops

Big Fish
Morris got his start selling fishing tackle from an eight-foot shelf in the back of his father’s Brown Derby liquor store in Springfield, Mo.

Photo: Bass Pro Shops

Big Fish
Bass Pro Shops operates 12 company stores from Destin in the northwest Panhandle to Islamorada in the Keys. A 13th is coming to the Jacksonville area.

Photo: Bass Pro Shops

Big Fish
Morris is contemplating what to do on more than 5,200 acres he acquired by the town of Welaka on the St. Johns River in Putnam County in north Florida.

Photo: Bass Pro Shops

Big Fish
The Valhalla Resort will include a general store, cottages and a 30-room lodge. Located 15 minutes away from Marathon International Airport and a two-hour drive from Miami, the nature-based fishing resort will be the largest resort created in the Florida Keys when it's finished.

Photo: Rendering: Bass Pro Shops

Big Fish
Johnny Morris spent decades acquiring the land on Valhalla Island and neighboring Grassy Key where he's building the Valhalla Island Resort.

Photo: Bass Pro Shops

Big Fish
Bass Pro signed a contract with Okeechobee County in 2018 to redevelop the lakefront Okee-Tantie recreation area. The company's master plan details Morris' vision for a "nature-based fishing resort destination" with marina facilities for fishing, boating and more.

Photo: Bass Pro Shops

Big Fish
Morris wouldn’t give an interview about his Florida plans, instead writing in longhand a two-page letter to Florida Trend (right). Handwritten letters are something Morris is known for, using them long after his company became a giant and acquired rival Cabela’s in a 2017 deal worth an estimated $5 billion.

Photo: Florida Trend composite

Big Fish
Bass Pro says "Johnny's dream" for Welaka is to create a "high quality, nature-based attraction" similar to Dogwood Canyon, a 10,000-acre private nature park in the Ozarks that's owned and operated by the Johnny Morris Foundation.

Photo: Bass Pro Shops

Profile

Big Fish

Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris built a retail empire from his base in the Ozarks, but over decades he's quietly amassed land for a series of Florida resorts. His ‘Florida Dream' has proven slow going, but the master fisherman has, of course, learned

Mike Vogel | 3/12/2024

Halfway down the Florida Keys, a bit before the city of Marathon, the busy Overseas Highway for a short stretch becomes a road amid the rustic. No gas stations or supermarkets, no souvenir shell stores, no sandal shops. The dense vegetation sometimes gives way to glimpses of the Florida Straits to the south or Florida Bay to the north.

Right before Curry Hammock State Park, there’s a cut in the brush on the south side for Banana Boulevard. To call it a “boulevard” might be a tad generous for aging blacktop with nothing but scrub along it. But at its end, behind a construction fence, lies one of Johnny Morris’ grand Florida dreams.

Morris is the billionaire founder of Missouri-based bigbox outdoor sporting retailer Bass Pro Shops, and Florida figures prominently in his plans. The state bestows a bounty of buyers for Bass Pro shirts, tackle and outdoor-themed merchandise and gear. Florida ranks second only to Texas in store count, with 12 company stores from Destin in the northwest Panhandle to Islamorada in the Keys and a 13th coming to the Jacksonville area. Each store is a destination of its own, where customers can browse in an immersive lodge-like experience, their kids in tow, and marvel at massive aquariums, dine at a store restaurant or admire — as in Islamorada — a sister vessel of Ernest Hemingway’s Pilar.

Morris, though, envisions more from Florida than shoppers with wilderness dreams of their own. At the end of Banana Boulevard, he is building a “Johnny Morris Signature Resort” on two islands, one known as Valhalla Island or Crawl Key, and the other neighboring Grassy Key. He says the resort will be the largest in the Keys at 175 acres, which includes a mile of beachfront property.

Heading north to Lake Okeechobee, Morris plans another outdoor-oriented lodging and recreation site on the state’s largest freshwater lake. And in a third project, Morris is contemplating what to do on more than 5,200 acres he acquired by the town of Welaka on the St. Johns River in Putnam County in north Florida. In a presentation to local government officials in Okeechobee a few years ago, company representatives titled the three projects: “Our Floridian Dream.” But for Morris, the Florida venture also is deeply personal.

Morris wouldn’t give an interview about his Florida plans, instead writing in longhand a two-page letter to Florida Trend. Handwritten letters are something Morris is known for, using them long after his company became a giant and acquired rival Cabela’s in a 2017 deal worth an estimated $5 billion. “He’ll send a handwritten thank you for your thank you,” says Adam Putnam, the former Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and excongressman who is CEO of the wetlands and grassland conservation group Ducks Unlimited.

Morris, in his letter to Florida Trend, writes, “Growing up in the Missouri Ozarks (about as far away from the ocean as you can get) I always dreamed of going to Florida to fish your big game fish and for really big bass. … Will never forget pulling my boat behind my truck and seeing the billboards as I approached the St. Johns River ‘Welcome to the Bass Capital of the World.’ There is no place, outside my home in the Ozarks, more special to me than Florida.”

Normally, the arrival of a politically connected billionaire with development plans makes Florida environmentalists nervous. But Morris, judging by the response of conservation groups, is different — generous to conservation causes, careful of the environment.

Among his credentials: Then-President George H.W. Bush in 1990 gave him the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Award. In 2013, Morris won the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s highest honor. In 2019, he became one of the rare recipients of an Audubon Medal.

“I believe that Johnny Morris will be a developer with a keen interest in conserving the water, fish and wildlife that make the area unique and attractive to visitors. He is known to have a conservation heart,” says Margaret Spontak of the Great Florida Riverway Trust, which has been working to restore the natural flow of the Ocklawaha River from a decades-old dam project. The river meets the St. Johns in Putnam County where Morris now holds so much land.

“I don’t anticipate he’s going to do a lot of things that are environmentally concerning. Without the environment, where would Bass Pro be?” says Barry Wray of the Florida Keys Environmental Coalition.

Putnam, the former agriculture commissioner, calls Morris “an icon for conservation” whose “legacy in the conservation space will be unmatched in the modern era.”

Putnam has known Morris since serving in Congress from 2001 to 2011, has visited the Morris-built Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium in Missouri and also knows Welaka, fondly remembering 4-H events he attended there as a child. “Whatever he’s going to do, he’s going to do it the right way and in a manner that we’re all going to be proud is in our backyard,” Putnam says. “I’ve been to Wonders of Wildlife, which is consistently the best aquarium in the United States. That operation is what the Smithsonian would be if it were being built today. That exceeds what we have in Washington.”

The Angler

Morris got his start selling fishing tackle from an eight-foot shelf in the back of his father’s Brown Derby liquor store in Springfield, Mo. It was his only location for 13 years. As a youth on a family vacation to the Keys, Morris learned to fish for tarpon. His parents enjoyed the Keys so much they purchased a home on 7th Street in Key Colony Beach, a town of around 800 just a few miles from Valhalla. “Just happy memories,” Morris said of the place in 2022.

He wears fishing shirts to news conferences when others wear suits. With his down-home demeanor, the father of four comes off as an affable fishing guide, or maybe a boat engine repair shop owner, rather than the entrepreneur Forbes estimates is worth $8.7 billion, owner of a 172-store chain and head of the world’s largest boat maker by volume, White River Marine Group.

As he built his business over the years, Morris invested in Florida real estate, in some cases lot by lot, until he held every undeveloped property in a subdivision. On Valhalla, the site of a small motel by that name, he began accumulating land more than 40 years ago. In north Florida, also more than 40 years ago, he bought the 10-bedroom Floridian Sports Club Fish Camp in Welaka on the shore of the St. Johns, the “bass fishing capital of the world” as it styles itself. Morris “fell in love” — the company says — with the area when competing in the 1970s at the first B.A.S.S. tournament on the St. Johns. Bass Pro uses the Floridian fish camp to host boat dealers, store managers, vendors and conservation groups.

The little town (population 731) has been abuzz for the past three years with word that Morris acquired acreage larger than the footprint of the town. “We have no idea really what they’re going to build. I don’t think anyone knows,” says Gwynn Joseph, an owner of Andersen Lodge, a restaurant, bar and lodge in Welaka. She says Morris’ impact on her business will depend on whether his guests tend to stay onsite or venture into the town to patronize local establishments. Welaka town council president and chair of the Reunite the Rivers advocacy group Jessica Finch says that at a candidate’s forum a couple years back, Morris’ plans accounted for “probably 80%” of the questions to candidates. Reunite the Rivers seeks to breach the Rodman/Kirkpatrick dam on the Ocklawaha and restore the river’s natural flow. “There’s a lot of interest in what they may or may not do,” Finch says of Bass Pro.

Morris hasn’t done much to satiate that interest. In 2022, Morris spoke briefly at a Gov. Ron DeSantis news conference in which DeSantis, who has enjoyed Morris’ financial support in his political campaigns, announced a $3.5-million grant for a new Welaka wastewater treatment plant to serve the town and future development. Said Morris at the time, “We love this river. We love the community. We don’t have any real big particular plans, but when we develop some or have a wish list, we’ll be sure and work with everybody and be part of the community and hopefully whatever we end up with, if we do something, everybody will be proud of it.” Construction on the plant begins this year.

Bass Pro says Morris has focused to date on improving the habitat in the lands he has acquired and sees potential in expanding the fish camp. “Johnny’s dream,” the company says, is to “create a high-quality, nature-based attraction, much like Dogwood Canyon Nature Park in the Ozarks.” The 10,000-acre preserve is owned and operated by the non-profit Johnny Morris Foundation run from Bass Pro’s headquarters.

In 2018, Morris got an option from Okeechobee County to acquire and develop the long-closed Okee- Tantie recreation area. The company talked of a 120- room lodge, upscale RV pads, glamping sites, a restaurant and a marina but hasn’t submitted a final plan.

The project faces regulatory hurdles it may not be able to overcome. The unique advantage of the site also is its disadvantage. It sits within the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding the lake — giving it unparalleled access — but also faces flood risk and regulatory impacts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and regional water regulators. His company has received extensions from the county as it tries to make the project financially viable while meeting regulations. “Mr. Morris is absolutely in love with the site,” one of his representatives told county commissioners in 2020, adding, “He’s famous for saying we will not rush a project on false deadlines.”

The latest in several extensions on the contract runs to April as the company says its due diligence continues. Richard Reade, Okeechobee County deputy administrator, says, “Just going through the process. We are looking forward to the project.”

The Road to Valhalla

Meanwhile, Morris’ Valhalla plan calls for a resort that his company says will be a “model of low-impact sustainable design,” carbon neutral, with all surfaces permeable, onsite solar and geothermal power and rainwater harvesting. Plans call for 110 units in cottages and a master lodge, restaurants, a spa, pools, a marina and gathering spaces.

By acreage — though not room count — Valhalla will dwarf other Keys resorts. Nearby Hawks Cay has 387 hotel guest rooms and villas on 60 acres. Isla Bella Beach Resort in Marathon has 199 units on 24 acres. More than half Morris’ property would remain green space. Guests will park at an entrance near the Overseas Highway and get around on foot or golf cart. It will employ 300 full-time and up to 500 seasonally.

“I think any community would welcome a project like this,” says Marathon Mayor Luis Gonzalez. “Everything he does is very environmentally sensitive. It’s going to bring huge tax dollars, not only to the city but to the county.”

City Manager George Garrett compares Morris’ resort plan to the luxury Little Palm Island Resort & Spa on Little Torch Key, a property that bills itself as “America’s only private island resort.” “It’s Little Palm Island on steroids with access to U.S. 1,” Garrett says of Valhalla. “It means a lot to us.”

Morris successfully navigated the stringent approval process in the Keys. In one maneuver, he overcame the area’s Rate of Growth Ordinance, a critical hurdle that restricts growth so that the islands can be efficiently evacuated in the event of a hurricane and lighten impacts on nature. The ordinance awards scarce “rights” to add housing and lodging under a complicated allotment formula. Morris purchased several mom-and-pop motels and transferred their lodging “rights” to his resort project. He then applied for 85 to 90 workforce housing “rights” — easier to come by under the complicated rules — and assigned them to the former motels, which he plans to renovate into apartment buildings for his employees. “This is a guy who’s not only thinking about the resort, he’s thinking about the people he’s going to employ,” says Gonzalez, Marathon’s mayor.

Morris also secured for Marathon a $1.3-million state jobs grant to upgrade the Banana Boulevard intersection with the Overseas Highway and to add nearly a milelong sewer line to allow development. Marathon applied for the money but a “substantial amount” of the application work, city manager Garrett says, was done by Morris’ people. DeSantis, as he did in Welaka, journeyed to Valhalla to announce the grant.

Other challenges proved intractable. Morris acquired the undeveloped lots on neighboring Grassy Key, but it will be accessible to his guests only by boat. And he can’t acquire a sandbar a couple hundred yards offshore that’s a popular place for boaters to drop the hook on weekends and holidays.

He also couldn’t convince one Valhalla couple to sell. Cheryl Wilcox and husband Duke Martin didn’t want to leave their house and dock just off Banana Boulevard where they’ve lived for 30 years. In an interview in the shade of the house, with the American and Marine Corps flags flying out front, Martin says he doesn’t mind that he will be surrounded by the resort Morris plans. “He made us a very, very fair and generous offer,” Martin says, which they refused. At the project announcement in 2022, Morris acknowledged the couple in the crowd. “And Duke and Cheryl, our neighbors, thank you for being here today and being great neighbors,” Morris said.

When Valhalla was announced, the company projected it would be open by late 2024. As of November, site work consisted of little beyond relocated trees, a construction fence and acres of fill that have elevated the site. The challenge proving the most difficult for Morris is the insurance market.

“Unfortunately, after Hurricane Ian (in 2022) we had to put the project on pause due to the significantly rising costs of insurance,” the company says. Given the impact on the resort’s financial viability, the company says plans for resort structures are being re-thought. The company says Morris and Bass Pro remain “deeply committed” to the project.

The company now says it will open in 2026. “This isn’t just an overnight thing,” Morris said at the project announcement in 2022. “It isn’t just about something to make money as a resort developer. This project is something about — has a lot to do with passion. … The Keys is a treasure. This piece of land is a treasure. And we want to treat it that way and keep it that way.”

What’s In the Works and Where

WELAKA: 5,200 acres were acquired in Putnam County, where the St. Johns and the Ocklawaha rivers come together. The county is a significant focus of conservation groups because of the long battle to restore the Ocklawaha and the surrounding ecosystem.

OKEECHOBEE: A fishing resort is envisioned on the state’s largest freshwater lake at the long-closed Okee-Tantie recreation area but is stalled amid regulatory hurdles. The company has floated plans that include RV pads, glamping sites, a restaurant, a lodge and a marina.

VALHALLA ISLAND RESORT: Nothing beyond some site preparation work has occurred for the 175-acre resort, which includes a mile of beachfront property spanning two islands in the Middle Keys, five miles northeast of Marathon. Once completed it will be the first Johnny Morris Nature Resort outside of Missouri and Tennessee.

Roughing It in Style

The niche of branded, outdoor-oriented lodging coupled with experience-focused programming has taken off nationally in recent years. But it’s still not a widespread trend, says Daryl Cronk, the Orlando-based director of hospitality analytics for the commercial real estate information company CoStar. In Florida, an early entrant was licensor Guy Harvey Outpost Resorts, which at present has affiliates on St. Augustine Beach and the Kissimmee River. In 2022, New York-based Getaway, which develops tiny-cabin getaways near major cities, opened Gilchrist Springs 30 miles from Gainesville with 45 cabins on 90 acres. Meanwhile, at Flamingo in Everglades National Park, a 24-suite lodge, replacing one destroyed by hurricanes in 2005, opened last year. Seattle-based LOGE, another player in the niche, plans to look for more sites in the Southeast, including its first in Florida, in 2024. Mike Weiss, co-founder of New Yorkbased Trailborn, which opened its first location at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park last year, says, “We’re always looking for new opportunities across the Southeast, including in Florida.”

Bass Pro knows the lodging niche well through its resorts in Missouri and Tennessee. For years, it’s had a joint venture in properties with Boca Raton-based timeshare company Bluegreen Vacations. Bass Pro says its ownership share in the five joint-venture properties is confidential, but publicly held Bluegreen in its 2020 annual report listed Bass Pro’s share at 49% in three properties. Earlier this year, Hilton Grand Vacations acquired Bluegreen, which marketed its timeshares at Bass Pro stores.

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