Central Florida Builder is the Visionary Behind Several Projects
As a boy, Chuck Whittall liked to build things — not with blocks or other toys but with real wood, a hammer and nails his mother brought home from the lumber store. “I had a little saw, and I was always outside building things,” he said. “I made a tree fort, a car and an airplane.”
Today, the developer and president of Unicorp National Developments in Orlando is still building things, still bringing ingenuity and daring to the work, and still deriving pleasure from it. “I love the creative parts and all the people I get to meet, being visionary and bringing new ideas to Central Florida, designing buildings and bringing ideas into fruition,” he said.
Several of those ideas are taking shape now at O-Town West, a $1 billion project not far from Walt Disney World where the largest White Castle restaurant in the nation opened May 3 and set a single-day sales record. The complex will include a boardwalk lined with shops, restaurants and entertainment venues as well a grocery store, 1,300 luxury apartments and the Marriott Vacations Worldwide corporate headquarters.
Whittall and Unicorp, which is knee-deep in $3 billion in development projects that will eventually include the redevelopment of Fashion Square Mall, have helped to polish Central Florida. “My vision for the area is to make it really, really cool,” he said. “We want to bring some concepts here that you see in markets like Miami or New York. We are a maturing market, so we want to keep bringing mature concepts here, not just the typical trend-driven restaurants.
“Central Florida is more sophisticated than it was a decade ago. You didn’t used to see Ferraris and Lamborghinis, but now we have Ferrari, Rolls-Royce and Lamborghini dealerships. More interesting concepts are coming here that wouldn’t have before — like the Sixty Vines restaurant we built in Winter Park — because we’re blossoming and becoming a little bit more cosmopolitan.”
Whittall is proud of his company’s role in that transformation. “Unicorp has been willing to take risks. I think they’re safe risks because I believe in everything we do, but those risks have allowed us to bring lots of great things here — from The Wheel and StarFlyer at ICON Park on International Drive to Trader Joe’s grocery stores to the new White Castle restaurant.”
He has remained bullish and confident throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “Going strong was the right decision for my company,” he said. “I thought that, like with any recessive period, we would cycle through it. It’s paying off today because we’ve got 26 projects under construction,” most of them in Central Florida. Last year, as chairman of the reopening committee that was part of the Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force formed by Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings, Whittall helped write the protocol that allowed businesses to reopen safely.
Whittall said he already sees an uptick in the local economy, including the hospitality sector, and he expects it to continue to strengthen. “Everyone is bouncing back. Our Wyndham Hotel is making a profit again. Our restaurant Slate on Sand Lake Road is very busy. I think there’s enough pent-up demand that everybody will do well, and come July Fourth, when we should reach herd immunity, the confidence level is going to skyrocket.
“This fall and winter are going to be strong, and next year is going to be even stronger. Homes are selling in one day. I’m 100% bullish on the market, as I always have been.”
Whittall shares his secrets to success on his podcast “Chuck Chat,” available on Apple, Google and Spotify. He also wrote a book, Perseverance: Broke to Billions: Barriers in Business and Strategies to Remove Them, which was released late last year and made the lists of top motivational and real estate books.
And yes, he really was broke. His parents divorced when he was 12, and his stepfather kicked him out of the house when he turned 18. “I moved out with only the clothes on my back and two bedsheets,” he said.
Whittall worked as a DJ for three or four years, and when he was 21 he started a stucco and drywall company. He began to buy properties in foreclosure, which he fixed up and sold, flipping houses way before it was cool. That turned into a home construction business when he was 26, and six years later, he started Unicorp National Developments.
In the 23 years since, the company has created everything from luxury resorts and communities to retail centers and apartments, specializing in premier mixed-use and residential developments.
In April, Unicorp broke ground on Celebration Pointe, a grocery-anchored shopping center in Osceola County. But shoppers will have to wait a while longer — until 2022 — for the redevelopment of the languishing Fashion Square Mall. First the project hit some pandemic snags. “Now we’re dealing with resolving issues from the previous foreclosure,” Whittall said. Plans call for the mall to eventually include high-rise apartments, a hotel, a grocery store, offices, stores, restaurants, a day care center, a fitness center and a resort for pets.
“I’m proud of the way I’ve built my business and the way it’s benefited many people’s lives,” he said.
As busy as he is, Whittall leaves himself plenty of time to play. He likes to relax on his boat in Longboat Key on the state’s west coast. He is a licensed pilot and owns two planes, although he chooses not to fly them. “They’re pretty big. And I like to sit in the back, drink cocktails, listen to music and work,” he said.
His favorite thing, though, is driving fast — he’s a racecar driver on the Ferrari Challenge North America team and placed third at the season opener at Virginia International Raceway on March 26. So when he says fast, he means fast. He once drove 230 mph. Luckily for Central Florida, Chuck Whittall is not a man to slow down.