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The Rebirth of the World's Most Famous Beach


In the world of fashion, what is “out” can suddenly become “in,” sometimes in the blink of an eye. The same can be said of Florida’s beaches, whose popularity can rise and fall like the tides. Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Destin, for instance, have each held the spotlight as “Florida’s Most Fashionable Beach” at some time.

So, in a state literally surrounded by beaches, where is the next hotspot? Signs point to Daytona Beach.

A Renaissance in Daytona Beach

The World’s Most Famous Beach may not be recognizable to those who haven’t stepped foot on it recently. From the new streetscapes along A1A to the razing of old lodges, Daytona Beach’s 23 miles are experiencing a renaissance.

Daytona earned widespread notoriety early in the 20th century as the summer playground for industrial bluebloods who enjoyed racing expensive cars and landing airplanes on the wide-open beaches. Later, Daytona Beach became the premier spring break destination. For years, the city dealt with a perpetual hangover from rowdy parties and wild students.

Daytona Beach’s lodging and attractions didn’t keep pace with the latest needs of the affluent; well-heeled guests slipped away to other beaches. But now, the forces are aligning to bring Daytona into a promising new era.

“Daytona Beach offers the best values in the Florida market for anyone who wants to live on the ocean or just visit for a few days,’’ said Peter Morral, a national real estate expert. “In addition, the Daytona market does not come with the baggage you often find elsewhere: crippling traffic, congested airports and poorly planned communities.”
Just two years ago, Daytona Beach was hit hard by a series of storms, but out of this devastation has emerged a determination to return the city, as well as Ormond Beach and Daytona Beach Shores, to its rightful place as a world-class destination.

Leading the charge are Charles Bray and Joseph Gillespie, of Bray & Gillespie, LLC, owners of the hotel management and real estate investment firm Ocean Waters. Bray and Gillespie are real estate investors from Atlanta, Georgia, who scoured the Atlantic Seaboard for a place to build their company. Their goal was to find an untapped, undervalued market with natural beauty. They wanted to acquire a critical landmass so they could execute a comprehensive urban plan unprecedented in beach area development history.
Bray, who graduated at the top of his hospitality management graduate school class at Florida International University, fell in love with what he saw in Daytona—a
wide-open beach with a huge need for revitalized communities, hotels and streetscapes that would completely upgrade
the image.

“Millions flock to the beach every year,’’ Bray explained. “They are attracted by beautiful, blue water and white sands. Daytona Beach has that in abundance. It is the biggest, best beach in Florida.”

Partner Gillespie agrees. “A visit to Daytona is cool,” Gillespie said. “I mean that literally—our breezes make our beach so much cooler than, say, roasting in Miami.’’

Invest in Daytona’s Future

Bray & Gillespie, which has spent years structuring and closing real estate transactions for clients, discovered Daytona Beach and quickly put down roots. It announced in 1998, shortly after making Daytona home, the plan to purchase at least 20 hotels, with 2,000 hotel rooms under its management. Some people in Volusia County raised a skeptical eye.

Eight years later, with its acquisitions continuing, the partners have exceeded their own projections. Bray & Gillespie, through the Ocean Waters companies, owns more than 37 hotel sites with 2,175 operating hotel rooms under management. Ocean Waters is now one of the largest privately-held hospitality management firms in the country, with more than two miles of oceanfront on the World’s Most Famous Beach. The Bray & Gillespie portfolio is believed to be the largest collection of prime oceanfront property in the country.

A promised beach area revitalization already is underway. The company has removed nine hotels to date, and another four demolitions are planned. In their place will be landscaped parks until the new communities and resorts are completed.

In addition, a number of resorts have been renovated. The results are already bringing back sophistication, elegance, fun and families. The entire Ocean Waters­­ line of fine hotels and resorts will be rated from three to five stars.

Ocean Waters’ success is built upon its effort to establish partnerships with city leaders and local businesses, to formulate green development plans that excite and involve the entire community.

“We’re on a mission to bring forth a new Daytona Beach,” said Doug Kosarek, senior vice president of Ocean Waters. “Together with local governments, we are working to create an environmentally friendly master plan for the beachfront that has the finest resorts, residences and amenities for everyone to enjoy. We want Daytona Beach to be recognized as the most spectacular coastal stretch on Florida’s eastern seaboard.”

Volusia County Council Chair Frank Bruno agrees. “Working together with Bray and Gillespie, we have set the foundation for smart growth,” Bruno said. “The work we are doing here is being recognized nationally, and it is inspiring others to join the effort.”

In addition to neighborhood revitalization, Bray & Gillespie invests in its community. It has recently donated more than $2 million to local charities and educational programs for the area’s youngsters. 

A Time to Mature

In 1998, Daytona Beach’s historic Plaza Resort was a dilapidated hotel. The adjoining nightclub was ground zero for Daytona’s hard-partying image. Bray & Gillespie decided early on that the Plaza Resort would be a symbol of Daytona’s return to an affordable, upscale, family-oriented destination.

The hotel’s popular nightclub, 600 North, was closed down—a sure sign that spring break was over at the Plaza Resort & Spa. The move made national headlines. Bray announced that the resort’s pool deck, once home to loud concerts and MTV parties, would become a place where families could feel comfortable “We made a conscious decision to stop promoting spring break business.’’ Kosarek said. “It is time for Daytona Beach to move forward and mature. Times change and the beach will be more sophisticated.’’ The partners spent $70 million transforming the historic landmark into the new Plaza Resort & Spa. The exclusive hotel/condominium retains its classic elegance, while offering interiors with the latest modern luxuries—from polished Jerusalem marble tile to 42-inch flat-screen TVs. The resort also includes the area’s only European-style spa. The Ocean Waters Spa is an ultra-luxurious, 15,000-square-foot, full-service spa and salon.

Earlier this year in neighboring Ormond Beach, Bray & Gillespie unveiled an ambitious beach revitalization plan that would transform the Ormond coastline with a proposed five-star hotel, Mediterranean-style residences and resorts, public parks, off-beach parking, and a new community recreation center.

Ormond Beach Mayor Fred Costello applauds the efforts. “This is a once in a lifetime chance,’’ the mayor said. “We can work hand-in-hand with a private partner to ensure our beach will remain a great treasure that all citizens can enjoy for years to come.”

A New Daytona

Along Florida’s Atlantic Coast from Daytona Beach Shores to Ormond Beach, there is a feeling that the World’s Most Famous Beach is reclaiming its reputation as a luxurious and fun destination.

“We have lived through a time with a reputation that was somewhat tarnished,” Daytona Beach City Manager Jim Chisolm said. “Daytona Beach will always be an American icon, and the most exciting thing is that our best days are still ahead. We are definitely back in vogue.”

—Edited by Alison Kemp

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