Already convinced a run-down recreation spot and mobile-home park along the St. Johns River needs a thorough cleanup and reconstruction, the Volusia County Council Nov. 17 sealed the deal with unanimous approval of a plan to restore the site.
Once a thriving fish camp, vacation destination, boating stop and mobile-home park, Blair’s Jungle Den in Astor has seen better days. Now an extreme makeover will take place, possibly beginning next spring.
The few residents who still live at Jungle Den will be bought out, and the redevelopment will include establishing a Sheriff’s Office substation on the property to serve northwest Volusia County.
Glenn Storch, attorney for the developer, described the current conditions and the threat those conditions pose to the St. Johns.
“This place is a disaster area,” he said. “Every bit of stormwater flows into the river.”
Storch talked about the 89.6-acre tract that was once a gem along the river in northwest Volusia. The old hotel and restaurant closed years ago, while many of the mobile homes have been abandoned. The buildings, along with the docks, are in disrepair and even falling into the water.
Moreover, there is the potential for wastewater runoff from an old sewage-disposal system into the river during flooding.
Storch’s client, Randall Knapp, of Auburndale, is ready to invest $30 million into the Jungle Den property, with the goal of creating an economic and tourism showcase.
The County Council needed little persuasion.
“If there is a chance that we can make this a world-class resort ... I’m fully in support of this,” Council Member Ben Johnson said. “This is something that will put Astor back on the map for the good.”
County Chair Ed Kelley said he would like to see the property restored to “what it used to be,” with “catfish fries on Friday night.”
Knott’s vision for rebuilding Blair’s Jungle Den includes demolishing and removing the old trailers and structures and building a new hotel, restaurant, general store, marina, and recreational-vehicle park.
His plan calls for replacing the inadequate sewage-disposal system with connections to nearby St. Johns Utilities.
In addition, hiking trails and golf-cart paths will be laid.
Not least, a Volusia County Sheriff’s Office substation will be provided for improved public safety in that rather remote section of the county.
Once the new resort opens, Storch said, the businesses will bring approximately 46 new jobs to the area.
Council Member Barb Girtman wondered about the fate of the few people still living in the decaying mobile-home park.
“I was concerned about the displacement of residents,” she said.
County Growth and Resource Management Director Clay Ervin said Knapp is “buying out” the property of the few residents still there.
Knapp, Storch added, is “offering two or three times more than the fair market [rent] until they find a place.”
“He [Knapp] is making sure the people are taken care of,” Ervin said.
Ervin said there are “two or three” owner-occupied dwellings now on the Jungle Den site.
The County Council’s approval of the Jungle Den restoration took the form of rezoning the property, eliminating the three zoning categories now applied to the land and designating the project as a planned-unit development (PUD). The Blair’s Jungle Den tract currently has B-7 Commercial, A-2 Transitional Agriculture, and MH-1 Mobile Home Park. All three designations now give way to PUD.
In addition to the new buildings and facilities, Knott plans to set aside 21 acres of the property for conservation. The build-out of the new resort may take about two years, Ervin estimated.
“This is a very complex project,” he said. “It’s a cooperative effort between government and the private sector. I think this is a great opportunity to create a beautiful, beautiful resource.”
An Astor real-estate agent, Dee Dee Stroup, hailed the council’s action.
“As a homeowner, ... I know how dilapidated Jungle Den is,” she said. “I have pictures of the flooding that is on that property.”
The rebuilt Jungle Den will also be another draw for travelers, according to West Volusia Tourism Advertising Authority Executive Director Georgia Turner.
“This project is going to create economic development in the area,” she said.