Surfing in the sand? Two companies want you to ride waves in the California desert
Originally Published on The Desert Sun by Rosalie Murphy
March 29, 2017
More than 100 miles from the Pacific coast, there are two proposals for surf parks — water and sports parks designed around huge wave pools for surfing — in the works for two neighboring desert cities.
Honokea Surf Villages and Resorts, a Hawaii-based company that helped design a recently opened surf park in Austin, Texas, says it has land under contract in Indio for an outdoor recreation facility that would include a “surf lagoon,” skate park, BMX track and acquatic track for stand-up paddleboarding.
That proposal joins one from Matteson Capital, working with Quiksilver Hotels and Resorts, which pitched a surf park and recreation facility for Palm Desert two and a half years ago. Agreements between the company and the city have been renewed once, and Matteson is due to present new plans to the City Council in April, city staff said.
“The development of standalone surf parks and man-made surf destinations, with the focal point being a high-quality surf pool or surfing lake, is not necessarily new, but it is picking up a lot of momentum in the last five years,” said John Luff, founder and president of Surf Park Central, a six-year-old trade publication for the surf park industry.
Luff said two surf parks have opened in the U.S. in the last five years, and he estimated 30 to 50 more are in various stages of development.
He was familiar with both Coachella Valley proposals, and believes several other developers may be eyeing the desert for their own surf parks.
With tens of millions of people within driving distance and an existing surf culture in Southern California, plus thousands of California visitors who want to learn to surf, he thinks the Coachella Valley is “in the top 10 markets for a surf park today.”
“There’s a ton of potential for a surf park in the desert,” Luff said. “I’m sure somebody will get it and get it right, but I’m just not sure who that’s going to be.”
Honokea helped design the U.S.’ newest surf park, NLand, in Austin, although the company left the project before construction began in 2015, according to NLand. That project was developed in partnership with Wavegarden, a Spanish engineering company that Luff said is one of the world’s leaders in wave pool technology.
Honokea’s Coachella Valley proposal includes a Wavegarden surf lagoon, too.
Honokea chose the Coachella Valley for its second surf park project because of its proximity to the Southern California coast, where surfing abounds but waves aren’t considered as good as those in Hawaii or other surfing hotspots, marketing manager Janos Palko said.
“We want to use these kinds of sports to inspire people to live healthier lifestyles,” Palko said. “We want to create something that’s both a community amenity and a kind of regional attraction at the same time.”
Honokea hopes to open a 60-acre facility in Indio in 2019, Palko said.
The company has partnered with the La Quinta-based Rilington Group, a longtime local developer, on the project.
“Even though the resort has this high-level surfing component, with waves getting up to seven feet, they are also appealing to the family, not just the beginner surfer but young kids who have not done any surfing at all,” said Mickie Riley, founder of the Rilington Group. “I just think it’s really exciting for the valley.”
Palko said Honokea is “deep into the fundraising process” now. He estimated that the surf lagoon and basic infrastructure would cost about $30 million and the fully built-out project could cost up to $100 million.
Honokea is also planning a 50-room boutique hotel and restaurant on site, Palko said. The company believes the project will create about 400 construction jobs and 600 permanent jobs. On sustainability, Palko said, the facility would use native landscaping to keep its water use around “one-eighth of the water of a golf course in the same area.”
For visitors, prices at NLand in Austin include $60 for a lagoon session of “just under an hour,” $85 for a 1.5-hour adult group lesson and $150 for a private 1.5-hour lesson. Entry to that park is $5 for non-surfers.
Developers have not yet submitted proposals to the city’s planning commission or council, but Indio Mayor Elaine Holmes confirmed that Honokea has been talking to city staff for months. Holmes said she was “super, super excited at this opportunity.”
Palko said Honokea was aware of a previous proposal for a surf park in the desert, but hadn’t heard anything about that project in several years and assumed it “had gone cold.”
But it hasn’t yet, Palm Desert city staff and the developer said. In September 2014, Quiksilver Hotels and Resorts — a development group licensing the name of the decades-old surfing and sportswear brand — began negotiations to purchase 79 acres of land just south of Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert.
The land belonged to the successor agency to Palm Desert’s redevelopment agency. Funding for the deal was provided by Matteson Capital. Scot Matteson, CEO of that investment firm, is also executive chairman and founder of Quiksilver Hotels and Resorts, according to his LinkedIn profile.
In August 2016, the successor agency voted 5-0 to enter into an amended exclusive right to negotiate agreement with Matteson Capital for the proposed Quiksilver resort, modifying an agreement reached in 2014.
Martin Alvarez, Palm Desert’s director of economic development, said Matteson has not yet purchased the land. City Council expects to review revised plans from Matteson Capital in mid-April. At that time, council members can decide whether to continue the city’s relationship with the developer.
In a statement, Matteson called the project a “surf and action sports resort” that would bring “thousands of permanent jobs” to Palm Desert. Features of the proposed project would include three hotels, spas and restaurants, wakeboarding, paddleboarding, kayaking, water slides, a skate arena and sand volleyball courts, among other attractions.
“We are excited to get this project going as we enter the final phases of submitting our reports and studies to the city,” Matteson wrote.
Luff, the consultant, said that while surfing in pools isn’t new, the proliferation of interest in surf parks is. While some proposals are “pipe dreams” — Luff paused to point out his own pun — he believes those groups that combine industry knowledge and real estate expertise could make their splashy renderings reality.
“There’s been a lot of new technology developing, and the global consumer landscape moving more toward the experience economy — those two things combined are making man-made surfing destinations attractive and sustainable in the commercial realm,” Luff said.