As the chairman, CEO and founder of Chester-based Icona Resorts, it’s become second nature for Eustace Mita to recognize properties with the potential to be first-class luxury resorts. And for 15 years, he had set his sights on the Golden Inn, the iconic beachfront hotel in Avalon, N.J.
Back in 2001, he approached Valley Forge Investment Corporation—which, at that point, had owned the inn for more than a decade—with an offer. They declined. They had no interest in selling.
But Mita wouldn’t give up, politely contacting them about every six months. The lengthy pursuit finally ended this past December with a $25 million acquisition—currently the biggest hotel transaction in Cape May County history. Six months later, the Icona Golden Inn launched with a soft opening on Memorial Day weekend. A grand opening is planned for mid-July.
In a little over five months, Mita’s Achristavest development company transformed the hotel. “We’ve been working six days a week to meet our goal of opening for the summer season,” he says.
For an estimated $15 million, Mita elevated the 50-year-old hotel to his luxury standards, rehabbing 160 guestrooms. The new resort also has three restaurants and a reception venue. “We think we’re hitting every demographic and every need with these dining options,” Mita says.
The Avalon Brew Pub is a casual, family-friendly restaurant that offers beer handcrafted on-site. The more upscale Shimmers Bistro greets guests in the lobby. And the outdoor Sandbar Beach Bar & Lounge doubles the size of its predecessor and will feature live bands on weekends. Mita is also banking on getting a piece of the Shore wedding business with the inn’s Seaglass banquet room, which can seat 300, making it one of the largest venues of its kind in Southern New Jersey.
A luxury hotel is something that’s been conspicuously absent in Avalon. “It’s an incredible demographic,” says Mita. “Avalon and Stone Harbor are the Beverly Hills and the Malibu of the Jersey coast.”
On Seven Mile Island, there are just seven motels and three hotels. The Icona Golden Inn is the largest of the latter group, which also includes the Windrift and The Reeds at Shelter Haven.
Opening in the center of Stone Harbor three years ago, The Reeds has been a successful test case, proving that there is a market for high-end hotels. The boutique hotel’s rates start at $400, and it’s hosted such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey and Kelly Ripa. “The Reeds has extended our season,” says Alicia Eger, owner of Coco Blu boutique. “[Off-season] weddings bring a lot of guests to the area.”
As for the Icona, John O’Dea, president of the Avalon Chamber of Commerce, has been monitoring the buzz from members since the sale. “Eustace is a Shore guy and has a long history down the New Jersey shore,” says O’Dea. “He gets it. We’re a small community here in Avalon and Stone Harbor, so when one of the biggest businesses and employers in such a key location announces change, everyone talks about it. The prior owners were great, but it was time for new ownership.”
The Icona Golden Inn isn’t the company’s only resort in the region. In three years, the Icona Diamond Beach has become New Jersey’s top-rated beachfront hotel on TripAdvisor. Also debuting this summer is the Icona Cape May, which is the former Palace Hotel.
It’s pretty ambitious to launch two resorts in a single season, but Mita is simply taking advantage of the opportunities as they’re presented to him. “My grandfather, Eustace Wolfington, owned the first beachfront hotel in Avalon in the late 1940s and early ’50s,” says Mita. “It was the Puritan, and he renamed it the Whitebrier.”
Growing up in Avalon, Mita recalls the two-hour wait to eat at the Golden Inn, where reservations for hotel stays had to be made up to a year in advance. With his track record, he might just repeat history.