Palm Beach County commissioners have given parks and recreation officials the go-ahead to start on a unique project 30 years in the making: a traditional Japanese inn, called a ryokan, slated for the Morikami Museum and Gardens in Delray Beach.
The inn was in the original master plan for the property, but it's taken years to come close to fruition.
The 200-acre plot of land where the Morikami Museum and Gardens sits first came into county hands in 1975 when George Morikami, a Japanese migrant who lived in Palm Beach County for 70 years, donated it to memorialize a Japanese farming colony that had been there.
In the early 20th century, Japanese immigrants began settling in an area of southern Palm Beach County called Yamato, but by the time World War II ended, only a few of the colonists remained. Morikami was one of the few who stayed in South Florida.
“He wanted the history of the Yamato Colony to be remembered," said Eric Call, Palm Beach County parks and recreation director.
The county is looking to upgrade the grounds by adding a relaxing, meditation-friendly inn. Unlike local "box" hotels, the ryokan would be a one-story structure that blends into the zen landscape of the existing museum and gardens.
"Now we're at the point where a Japanese inn, an artisan village, an expanded bonsai garden, a number of other things could happen," Call said.
Call said the inn would attract tourists and give locals a unique "staycation" spot, where they can get away without traveling too far from home.
Jupiter resident Karen Ronk, who used to live in Palm Beach Gardens, said she likes the idea of a ryokan in the area.
"It would be a lovely and peaceful getaway, especially in the cooler months," she said. "Definitely a different vibe than a beachfront resort. Hopefully locals could get special rates."
Lionel Lightbourne lives in Miramar but said having a Japanese inn in South Florida would add another "flavor" to the local melting pot.
"I would stay at the Morikami Museum and Gardens to further diversify my understanding of Japanese culture and all it has to offer," he said.
But for others, like Boca Raton resident Kim Cavendish, having more tourists in the area isn't ideal.
"I think the property as it is now with its peaceful gardens and fine museum is preferable to turning it into something potentially more crowded with noisy tourists," Cavendish said. "I'd rather see an extension of gardens, or a modest expansion to the museum itself."
The project is still in the beginning stages of planning, but could run anywhere from $10 to $50 million – money that Call says won’t be coming from taxpayers. Morikami Inc., the non-profit that helps fund the museum and gardens, will conduct a large capital campaign to pay for some of the improvements.
"We would work with probably an outside developer on the ryokan, so it wouldn't cost the taxpayers anything for this beautiful, authentic Japanese inn," Call said.
Palm Beach County will continue its remembrance of the Yamato people by devoting 60 to 70 acres -- nearly a third of the Morikami property -- to the inn.
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