Princess Palms and beheadings: high times turn hairy
May 3, 2011
By LISA RIZZO and KAREN VELIE
(Editor’s note: This is the second in a three part series about the history behind developer John King’s start in San Luis Obispo County and the financial challenges he is currently facing. Part one is “The life and times of John King.” Part 3)
Actor turned developer John King and some of his early business investments in the 1960s, notably in Warehouse Sound Co. and California Cooperage, undoubtedly paid off big and afforded him with greater opportunities.
But not everything King touched turned to gold.
On a trip with a local doctor who wanted to buy property in the U.S. Virgin Islands, King was seduced by the beauty of a plantation in St. Croix, the Princess Palms.
After a little research he learned that St. Croix was considering legalizing gambling and that Air France was planning to add the Caribbean island destination to its flight path. King said he envisioned an opportunity to build a casino resort and a Chart House Restaurant.
On a whim, King put the property in escrow and asked business partner Cliff Branch to wire $100,000 into their bank account for the purchase. Little did King, Branch and partner Jim Smith know at the time, their plans for the Princess Palms plantation were unwelcome.
The move was also before the buyers learned about political clashes on the island where in one of the extreme cases six vacationers were shot and killed at a nearby resort.
“When the guerrillas came out of the mountains and shot their machine guns over the heads of people on the golf course, it kind of hurt tourism,” Branch said with a sarcastic grin.
Arrangements moved along and the night before the Chart House opening, the chain restaurant hosted a celebration for their families. But the festivities took a tragic turn, King said, when four men entered the party with automatic weapons, bound, and raped some of the guests.
As a result, the Chart House Restaurant canceled the opening and its lease.
Several years past that awful night, San Luis Obispo developer Rob Rossi joined the Princess Palms partners and bought into the resort.
On one of their trips back to St. Croix, King took Rossi and Crushed Grape Owner Tommy Gonyer out to an old barn for a local island pastime. Rossi said that’s where he experienced his first cock fight.
“It is one of my favorite memories,” Rossi said. “There were about 100 native islanders, all men in the barn. We were the only Caucasians.”
The casino resort project moved forward until the final straw which ended their dream forever.
King and Rossi were preparing to return to the Virgin Islands to go over plans with the coastal commission there. But the meeting never happened–canceled by the gruesome news from their attorney that their St. Croix architects had been beheaded.
The partners decided they had to let their future plans for the ocean side plantation go.
“It was gorgeous. We practically gave it away,” Branch said. “We couldn’t sell it. We finally traded it for the federal building in Roseville, Oreg. It wasn’t one of our better deals.”
King returned his focus to business ventures back in California. He began partnering with Rossi under the name Rossi King Enterprises, also known as RKE.
During the 80s, Rossi and King developed properties throughout California including the SeaVenture Hotel in Pismo Beach and the Costco complex in Santa Maria. The duo has owned numerous projects together for more than 30 years.
“King is an adventurer, ambitious and creative,” Rossi said. “There are times we have been at each others throats, but it has been a great relationship.
“On a personal level, there is no one who is more charming.”
Over time, King changed the facade of the Central Coast and in some ways brought life back into defunct parts of San Luis Obispo County’s historical areas.
As the head and founder of King Ventures, his real estate development enterprise, King went on to restore historical landmarks throughout California including the Fremont Theater, the Cigar Factory, Park Hotel, JP Andrews building, and Railroad Square—all in San Luis Obispo.
He also led his company to refurbish a Salinas church built in 1879 to create the East of Eden Restaurant and brought back to life the Sacramento location of “the first newspaper in the west” which is now the Sacramento Union building.
King is also credited for creating a hospitality hot bed for tourism on the Central Coast, founding, building and operating several hotels and resorts. “John has done a lot of creative things for the community,” Branch said.
Through property management company Boutique Hotel Collection, King in part owned and operated some of the most prominent local hotels including the Inn at Morro Bay, Apple Farm Inn, Sycamore Mineral Springs, The Cliffs Resort, and SeaVenture Resort.
Outside the county, the hotelier has been part owner and operator of Fernwood Resort in Big Sur, and Two Bunch Palms Resort and Spa in Desert Hot Springs.
But the ownership and status of some of his marquee holdings has recently changed and been the scrutiny of the public eye which begs the question: will King’s chronicle be recorded along those that have risen and fallen?
Read part-three, the final segment of this story “Foreclosures, failings and filings” Wednesday at CalCoastNews.