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Hoteliers seek to revitalize Borrego Springs

Desert resorts get new lease on life

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Casa del Zorro, which has 44 hotel rooms and 19 stand-alone, one- to four-bedroom casitas, some with their own swimming pools, is set for a June 15 soft opening. Photo courtesy of CoStar Group.

The community of Borrego Springs is hoping for new beginnings as the Rams Hill is in escrow, the neighboring Casa del Zorro gears up for a June 15 opening, and the Borrego Springs Resort is for sale as well.

“It’s exciting what’s going on. We’re going to have new owners for the three biggest properties in town,” said Rick Vesci, president of Montesoro Properties, who has represented each of these assets.

Vesci said the more than 3,000-acre Rams Hill property, which has been switched back to its original name after being known as Montesoro for many years, is in escrow to an as-yet unidentified San Diego group of investors. Vesci said this group is separate from the unit that paid $2.35 million for the Casa del Zorro property in January. That property had a $3.3 million asking price according to CoStar Group (Nasdaq: CSGP) for a more than $1 million discount off its list price.

The 42-acre resort has 44 hotel rooms and 19 stand-alone, one- to four-bedroom casitas, some with their own swimming pools.

The transaction also included a two-story spa, approximately 6,000 square feet of banquet and meeting facilities, a 17,000-square-foot warehouse and a 19-unit apartment property.

The Casa del Zorro team includes former San Diego City Manager and La Jolla Management, LLC CEO Jack McGrory; Casey Brown and Steven Bollert of the BBL, Inc. real estate investment company; and Jack Giacomini, chairman of Hotel Managers Group.

La Casa, once a property of the Copley family, who formerly owned the San Diego Union-Tribune, had been acquired by a unit of GH Capital of Sherman Oaks for about $2.4 million in 2008.

Vesci said GH Capital, which had paid nearly $15 million for the then Montesoro property in 2004, spent about $8 million on Casa del Zorro improvements. The Casa was briefly known as Borrego Springs Ranch during this period.

Whatever the name, it never did well under GH Capital’s ownership, and a decision at the end of 2011 to disallow children at the property may have forced its closure. La Casa was shuttered within a couple of weeks of introducing that policy.

Now, with GH Capital’s improvements and some under the new ownership, La Casa del Zorro may have a new lease on life.

Patrick Sampson, Casa del Zorro general manager, said the June 15 date is what he referred to as “a very soft opening,” in which only the rooms and the casitas will be available.

“Our grand opening will be on Sept. 1,” Sampson said.

Along with the major upgrades to the rooms and restaurant that are already in place, work is being done to make the property complaint with the American with Disabilities Act, from ramps to pool lifts.

A resort may only be as strong as its management, and Sampson said Giacomini is his ace in the hole.

“He is seen in the business as being a very strong operator,” Sampson said.

Sampson, who said the weekends should take care of themselves, plans to focus his efforts on bringing in the weekday business with special events, as well as small conventions that could be lured to the desert throughout the year.

Vesci declined to reveal the names of incoming owners of Rams Hill, but said they are already assembling golf and resort packages with Casa del Zorro.

As for what is again known as Rams Hill, GH Capital, under the direction of Gregory Perlman, was never able to recover from a property that was highly leveraged and the recession that was soon to come.

“He sold about a dozen homes and 20 lots in 2007 -- even selling one lot for $435,000, but then the market ground to a halt,” Vesci said.

At a time when the developer wasn’t selling any lots and few people were playing golf, water costs and other assessments were continuing to mount. The golf course was permitted to close -- a key amenity of what was then known as Montesoro was unavailable for use.

A unit of Geyser Holdings then paid a total of about $2.5 million (accounting for liens and other encumbrances) in multiple transactions in 2011, with the intention of re-selling the property within the next couple of years.

The 3,000-acre property includes 131 finished single-family lots, about 150 unfinished lots and nearly 700 acres of entitled land where an equal number of homes could be developed, as well. Along with the golf course, the property includes a spa and tennis courts.

Vesci said the course, idle for about three years, should reopen later this year after some refurbishment by the incoming ownership. Rams Hill residents are voting on a plan to assess themselves $100 a month to help subsidize the cost of maintaining the course.

While Vesci is hopeful about Rams Hill and Casa del Zorro, owners of Rams Hill have had some difficult times with the property, long before GH Capital came into the picture.

Pioneered in the 1980s by the DiGiorgio family, who once tried to grow grapes in this desert, the original plan called for developing between 750 and 1,000 lots. The project stalled in the 1990s, after approximately 275 homes were developed. About 400 lots have been purchased overall, with nearly 325 homes constructed.

Vesci said there is also is a 14-acre parcel adjacent to the golf clubhouse which can be developed into a boutique hotel with 40-50 clustered, casita style units that could be sold as hotel condominiums.

Rams Hill and the Casa del Zorro aren’t the only Borrego Springs properties being handled by Vesci. He is also handling the sale of the Borrego Springs Resort that has been listed for $10 million.

The nearly 1,000-acre property consists of a 100-room hotel, 18 holes of a planned 27-hole golf course, a spa, restaurant, entitlements for more than 800 homes and accompanying commercial and retail space. The largest resort in Borrego Springs, the property had been offered at $23.5 million before the recession.

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