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Wednesday, Oct 4, 2023

Rancho Deluxe

Hummingbird Nest Ranch may be the most under-the-radar destination in greater Los Angeles. The property boasts a 100-year-old olive grove, a man-made lake and breathtaking views of the Santa Susana Mountains near Simi Valley. Then there is the elaborate Old World villa, Spanish-styled guest homes, paintings imported from France and doors handcrafted in Bali. Of course, all that luxury does not go completely unnoticed. The 126-acre ranch draws wedding parties weekly and about two dozen film productions every year. But it’s about to get a whole lot more popular. David Saperstein, its wealthy Houston owner, and partner Dean Kunicki, who 15 years ago developed the property into what it is today, have plans for an even further transformation. The two want to mold the ranch into a five-star resort with a conference center, spa, recreation facilities and eventually a 105-room hotel and nearly 100 private guest homes. The plans are far from a long shot. The ranch was acquired in 1999 by Saperstein, originally as a spread for his now ex-wife, Suzanne, a horse lover. He financed an initial $45 million expansion on his own dime, and this time around the plans are much more ambitious. Still, financing shouldn’t be a problem. Saperstein’s net worth is likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars, at a minimum. The project also has drawn the support of the Simi Valley City Council which voted unanimously on April 28 to approve the proposal, which comes amid an effort to draw more tourist dollars to the Ventura County bedroom community. The city and its hotels, like others recently, formed a tourism district to market Simi Valley as a destination. The city is already notable for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, but an expanded Hummingbird Ranch would certainly be a boost. “It will be welcomed for those visitors that want that type of seclusion,” said Leigh Nixon, chief executive of the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce. “With them in the mix, we will be able to offer a variety of lodging choices.” Revenue streams Prior to Saperstein, the ranch was owned by Paula Kent Meehan, founder of Redken Laboratories, a hair care company that was based in Canoga Park for years before moving to New York. Meehan used the land to raise and train horses for racing. When it came up for sale, Saperstein jumped on the property. And timing couldn’t have been better, as the purchase was made the same year he sold his Metro Networks Inc., a nationwide traffic reporting network, for $1.25 billion to WestwoodOne. He told the Los Angeles Times in a rare 2004 interview that “there’s no place like it in Southern California.” (Although Saperstein is not a member of the latest Forbes 400, which requires a minimum verified net worth of $1.3 billion, Kunicki describes him as a “citizen of the world” with homes in multiple cities. He was not made available for an interview.) At the time of his acquisition, the property was relatively undeveloped. There was a historic ranch house dating back to early last century and only a few facilities. So he hired Kunicki, a well-connected Simi Valley development consultant, to handle the project. “I didn’t know who he was at the time,” said Kunicki, a former chairman of the Simi Valley Planning Commission who counts homebuilders KB Home and Lennar Corp. as clients. Kunicki was given complete creative control and a budget of $100 million, which he said is almost unheard of. He recalled telling his wife, “I just took on a project I’m not sure I can do.” But Kunicki pored through architecture books and traveled to Europe and South America to perfect the style he was trying to capture for the ranch. Kunicki developed the ranch’s main house with multiple themed rooms, which are now popular among filmmakers. He also built an arena for equestrian competition, a gazebo, outdoor kitchen and bar, a helicopter pad and a field of solar panels that power the ranch. The work was completed in 2003. But three years later Saperstein and his wife divorced, and the ranch was put on the market for upward of $50 million. News reports at the time called the divorce among the most expensive ever. Saperstein ultimately decided to keep the ranch, which was becoming popular with the entertainment industry. In 2005, as the couple’s divorce was being finalized, the ranch hosted filming for the first time when the second season of “The Biggest Loser” was shot there. Filming is now one of the ranch’s primary sources of income with 20 to 30 productions annually that bring in $3,000 to $12,000 a day, according to Angela Fogg, the ranch’s location manager. “CSI” regularly sends crews, and films such as “Savages,” Oliver Stone’s take on Mexican cartels, and “Jobs,” starring Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs, filmed scenes there. Hummingbird’s other major revenue stream comes from events and weddings that take place in various spots across the site. Ranch Manager Craig Bennett said there were 50 weddings at the property last year, and this year, the number is at 60 and counting. Rental rates for weddings start at $4,000, according to various wedding websites. Kaley Cuoco, star of “The Big Bang Theory,” is among the brides to wed there. As revenue gradually climbed, Kunicki said the ranch has been able to sustain itself. So a few years ago, Saperstein decided to expand it and Kunicki started working with Simi Valley for approval of the proposed resort. Among the elements of the project’s first phase, which is expected to take about six years to complete, will be a restaurant, tennis courts, exercise room and pool. The existing stables will be converted into a conference center that can hold 800 people, and a 4,000-square-foot building will be constructed for administrative services and guests’ check-in. And in the second stage, the old historic ranch house will be converted into a spa and wellness center with 16 rooms designated for rehab and staffed with trained medical professionals, private suites for patients and private outdoor areas. Knucki expects some patients will use it as a hideout after plastic surgery. “A lot of people get work done in Beverly Hills. They want a place they can hide out and not worry about running into someone they know. This will be a perfect place to do that,” he said. The first 32 of 98 planned guest cottages also will be built in the second stage. Expected room rates weren’t disclosed, but Kunicki said a well-known hotel operator will likely be brought on. The 105-room, two-story hotel and the remaining private cottages are planned for a later third stage. ‘Non-traditional accommodations’ Hummingbird Nest Ranch will be part of the newly formed tourism business improvement district, or TBID, which is working to draw in tourism dollars for Simi Valley. Along with five other lodging choices in the area, hotels will start next month to tack on a 2 percent fee to each guest’s bill to fund the Simi Valley Tourism Marketing District. But as a luxury resort, Hummingbird is aiming to differentiate itself from the other hotel and motel options in town that include Best Western, Courtyard by Marriott, Extended Stay America, Holiday Inn and the Grand Vista Hotel. “We really need a place like this here,” Kunicki said. “A lot of times we have dignitaries come into town, and where are we supposed to put them: the Motel 6? We want to give people a much better option with a lot of amenities.” Bruce Baltin, senior vice president at hospitality consultancy PKF Consulting USA in Los Angeles, said there likely will be demand for the facility. He noted occupancy rates in the Simi and San Fernando valleys rose 5 points last year to 66 percent. “If the property itself is nice enough and the climate’s nice enough, it could attract people,” he said. “If it has the fundamentals, it can succeed.” Marcello Gasdia, of PhoCus Wright, a Sherman, Conn. travel consultancy, said the expanded resort also could draw Angelenos looking for a weekend getaway. “Millions of people live in L.A. You can’t go wrong with that location,” said Gasdia, who added that it is not like a typical beachfront property. “Non-traditional accommodations are becoming increasingly interesting to U.S. travelers.” Kunicki, 69, knows that it will take years to complete the project, but he’s determined to finish it. “I want to see this through,” he said. “It’s kind of my baby now.”

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