February 27, 2023
Icona Resorts, the developer behind multiple luxury hotels at the Jersey Shore, is seeking to build a massive project on the Ocean City Boardwalk next to Gillian's Wonderland Pier.
The proposal for the 325-room hotel was presented last Thursday to Ocean City's council. Icona Resorts CEO Eustace Mita described his plan to purchase and develop the municipal land between Fifth and Sixth streets, which is currently a large public parking lot.
“This is just the starting line," Mita told the city council while sharing renderings of the hotel, OCNJDaily first reported. "We would like to bring it over the finish line.”
Icona Resorts is a part owner of Gillian's Wonderland Pier, together with Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian. The developer also has two beachfront hotels in Avalon, three in the Wildwoods and two in Cape May. The company has a track record of purchasing and renovating properties, including Avalon's landmark Golden Inn, Diamond Beach's The Grand and Cape May's Palace Hotel.
In his presentation to Ocean City's council, Mita said the construction of a destination hotel would counteract the depletion of hotel and motel rooms over the last two decades. As these properties have increasingly been covered into condominiums, Mita said Ocean City's hotel and motel room count has fallen from about 3,000 in 2000 to roughly 750 today.
The proposal on the Ocean City Boardwalk would be at least eight stories high, with a swimming pool overlooking the boardwalk and retail shops on the ground floor.
“This end of the boardwalk needs an anchor to give it (the) class that we know we deserve," Mita told the council, saying the property currently creates no income for the city. If the hotel is built, Icona would immediately become the highest taxpayer in Ocean City, Mita said.
Wonderland Pier has been owned for generations by the family of Mayor Gillian. Financial troubles put the amusement park on the brink of a sheriff's auction two years ago after the owners defaulted on $8 million in mortgage debt. Wonderland Pier then entered a partnership with Icona Resorts.
Mita, who lives in Ocean City, said the boardwalk hotel project would be built without any involvement from Gillian's Wonderland Pier and would not be connected to the amusement park.
Over the last two years, Icona has been active in its search for a major hotel project at the Jersey Shore.
In October 2021, Icona proposed a 168-room luxury hotel at the former Beach Theatre site in Cape May, touting that project as a return to a bygone era of grand hotels at the Jersey Shore. The Cape May proposal has encountered zoning issues related to redevelopment of the land, and Cape May Mayor Zack Mullock told the Cape May County Herald there has not been any movement on it since a presentation to Cape May residents last August.
Last November, Icona also targeted a landmark bank building in Ocean City, at 801 Asbury Ave., for a hotel renovation. In January, Icona was outbid for the property in federal bankruptcy court by Ocean City Crown Holdings LLC, which has several other properties in Ocean City. The seven-story building, one of the tallest in Ocean City, will be renovated into a mix of hotel rooms and residences.
The latest proposal from Icona would require Ocean City to sell Mita the land and change the zoning for that part of the boardwalk to create a new hotel district. Current zoning laws in Ocean City prevent boardwalk hotels and high-rise projects in the city. Mayor Gillian, who won reelection last year, had been targeted during the campaign by his opponent, longtime council member Keith Hartzell, over the prospect of a high-rise hotel at Wonderland Pier.
"As long as I'm mayor it's absolutely not going to happen," Gillian said last April.
Icona's hotel proposals in Cape May and Ocean City were both developed with Philadelphia-based DAS Architects.
There is no timetable in place for the Ocean City proposal to move forward, but Mita told city council he hopes to proceed as quickly as possible.
"We haven't had a new hotel here in over half a century," Mita told the council. "And we think we have a one-time opportunity in a whole century to put together a destination and a premier hotel — one of the grand hotels that 50 or 100 years from now will still look good."