Universal Acquires More Property For Expansion

Dated: 04/13/2018

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Clearing the way for a new theme park, Universal on Thursday acquired hundreds of additional acres in Orlando, along with the deed restrictions that once were intended to block such a project.

The move came a day after the company settled a long-running legal dispute with a former owner of the property.

“We are excited about our plans for this area, and we are looking forward to sharing more at the right time,” wrote Universal spokesman Tom Schroder in an email. “We also look forward to working with our neighbors in the area and our partners in the community as we move forward.”

Deeds filed with Orange County on Thursday show the transfer of land from Georgia businessman Stan Thomas to Universal’s subsidiary, SLRC Holdings LLC. The exact acreage wasn’t announced and couldn’t be determined from the deeds, but it was most of what Thomas owned.

Also filed on Thursday is a formal assignment of rights to Universal that Thomas previously held on the land. The documents appear to wipe away any question that Universal can build a major new theme park, although other permits would still be needed.

The company, however, has not commented on its specific plans for the land.

In a complex set of transactions involving Universal and investment and real-estate firms, Thomas also has retained some property in the area, county records show. He signed a new mortgage on the land he still controls, acknowledging a new loan of $19.25 million from Florida real-estate investment firm Hudland Holdings.

Records didn’t state explicitly how much Universal paid Thomas, but do indicate that his affiliate companies were able to wipe out at least $144.7 million in debt related to his properties, according to property records, including $27 million that prompted a foreclosure in December from an affiliate of Atlanta-based Ardent Financial — AFF Universal.

Universal on Wednesday settled a lawsuit that concerned hundreds of acres that Universal acquired in 2015 for $130 million.

Thomas formerly owned that property and had sued the company, arguing that he still owned the rights to enforce private deed restrictions there, which included a ban on theme parks.

During the court hearings on that lawsuit, an attorney for Universal referenced theme-park plans, telling a judge they were “obviously super, super secret commercial information.”

Speculation about the fate of the property has coursed through the Orlando tourism industry for years, including a widespread belief that Universal is negotiating with Orange County regarding further permits, roads and other infrastructure.

New attractions are years in the making. Universal Parks and Resorts and Nintendo entered the agreement to create theme-park attractions in May 2015.

And in November 2016, NBCUniversal said it would build Nintendo lands in parks in Orlando, California and Japan in the coming years.

The new acreage sets Universal up to become a more of a destination property, similar to Disney, where people come to stay for period of days or even a week. The property would also give the Orange County Convention Center a much closer attraction, allowing convention goers to walk to a theme park.

The area has been targeted for a possible theme park before. A predecessor to Universal — Universal Vivendi — owned the property years ago, and had obtained government approvals to build attractions, thousands of hotel units and structures up to 400 feet high.

But Universal Vivendi sold the land as part of an ongoing plan to cut costs and raise cash amid an industrywide slump — and placed private restrictions on it to prevent competitors like Disney from building a rival park.

The property is south and east of Lockheed Martin’s plant on Sand Lake Road. Lockheed formerly owned it and sold about 2,000 acres in 1998.

Source: "Orlando Sentinel, Paul Brinkmann - Contact Reporter"

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