Roughly this time last year, Vladislav Doronin was being lauded as a visionary in Florida. The Soviet-born developer’s Miami-based OKO Group had invested tens of millions of dollars into Fort Lauderdale and Miami, betting on a pandemic-ravaged economy; in June 2020, the OKO Group spent $62.6 million for 6.7 acres in downtown Fort Lauderdale — with three other major projects already underway elsewhere in the state. Alongside partner and Cain International CEO Jonathan Goldstein, Doronin quickly made up the investments in early 2021, and the pair became the subject of a high-profile feature in the Miami Herald that was published on Feb. 26 that year.
But on Feb. 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine, marking the start of what is still an ongoing war. Days later — almost a year to the date of the Miami Herald piece coming out praising Doronin’s investments — the developer, who also owns the Aman luxury resort group, was met with protesters in New York City (a New York Aman location is set to open soon in the city’s Crown Building), demanding to know the billionaire’s stance on the invasion.
Doronin immediately issued a statement denouncing the “aggression of Russia on Ukraine” and “fervently” wishing for peace. It was a sentiment he reiterated in an interview with the Aspen Daily News on Wednesday.
“I firmly stand by this — I don’t believe violence is ever the answer,” he said. “And I hope this peaceful resolution can be reached as swiftly as possible. This is what I believe.”
What he can’t believe is how quickly and drastically his personal reputation has shifted because of his birthplace.
“Sorry, I don’t understand what happened in one day. Everything shift, like that — click! And I became a different person and judged by the place where I was born,” the famously private magnate said in a rare emotional moment. “You know, I’m the same person.”
Doronin was born in 1962 — when modern-day St. Petersburg was Leningrad in the Soviet Union. It would be until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, that the Bolshevik founder’s near namesake would become St. Petersburg. But by that time, Doronin had renounced his Soviet citizenship five years prior.
“[I] lived there [until] 1985, and I chose to leave after I finished university,” he said. “Even since I was young, I have desire to travel to other places: to experience different countries — which was impossible this time in the Soviet Union.”
And so, he left after graduating from Moscow Lomonosov State University. “I renounced my Soviet citizenship and I have not been a Soviet citizen since then,” the Swedish citizen said. “From 1986 … I never held a Russian passport [or] have been a Russian citizen, as I left before the dissolution of the USSR.”
That’s not to say he didn’t have business in his home country once it became Russia — he founded the Moscow-based Capital Group in 1993 as a commodities trading business before turning it to the commercial and eventually real estate markets, growing it to become one of the largest developers in Moscow. He sold his shares in the company in 2013.
“I have spent my time in various places around the world, including Switzerland, Hong Kong, Spain, Italy, England and the United States due to my global business interests.
“And also I love to travel because I came from a closed country,” he continued.
In 2014, he became the majority shareholder in Aman — a business move that reflected his personal desire to be a global citizen.
An avid skier, Doronin’s travels in the United States included Aspen. He came during the winters but — as the local adage goes — stayed for the summer at the recommendation of a friend in town.
“I personally believe in energy,” Doronin said. “To me, Aspen has a very special energy and feeling and is something I want to harness and celebrate with the forthcoming project.”
“The forthcoming project” refers to OKO Group’s recently paying $76.25 million for a near-acre parcel of land on Aspen Mountain initially fated to be developed into the Aspen voter-approved Gorsuch Haus. The land was part of the same parcel that Norway Island LLC — comprising local developers Jim DeFrancia, Jeff Gorsuch and Bryan Peterson — purchased from Aspen Skiing Co. for $10 million in July last year. And along with the land, OKO Group also bought the hard-fought entitlements to build the 81-room, 64,000-square-foot lodge that voters approved in March 2019 as part of the larger Lift One proposal. The vote passed by a mere 26 votes in an election that garnered 3,084 ballots.
So when Norway Island sold to the OKO Group on March 4 for seven and a half times what it had paid for it, the transaction sent shockwaves through the community. SkiCo President and CEO Mike Kaplan in a separate March 24 interview said when asked about his feelings on the matter: “Very disappointed in the sale.”
But that disappointment seemed more directed at the sellers than the buyer.
“We spent a lot of time with the Lowe, Gorsuch Group … developing what I think is a great plan,” Kaplan continued. “I think we had positive momentum going, and I just would urge the Doronin team to keep that momentum going. [I’m] not giving up yet.”
For Doronin’s part, he intends to do exactly that. The investment in Aspen represents a long-term one, he said.
“I want to reassure everyone in the community who is concerned that I’m not looking to flip it. We have a long-term plan in Aspen and will deliver it,” he said. “So we want to deliver a hotel which will be part of the fabric of [the] Aspen community for decades to come — this was our goal.”
Doronin is looking forward to getting to know Aspen more — he’s reading up on its history and is planning another visit when he feels the time is right — but already can feel local tensions surrounding affordable housing, or lack thereof. It’s why “we have committed to delivering a second project, which is an affordable housing initiative,” he said.
That project, too — at 1020 E. Cooper Ave. — has undergone its share of local controversy, with back-and-forth approval conversations between the Aspen City Council and Historic Preservation Commission. But ultimately, an amended proposal for the site was approved in November.
Doronin said that with his involvement, the 19-century mining cabin once occupied by beloved Aspen Times columnist Su Lum will be restored.
“As well as the creation of additional, detached building, which will house two- and three-bedroom units,” he said. “In total, the project will bring four new residential units to the Aspen market — which was more than was required in the Lift One entitlements. In the long term, I hope to deliver future affordable housing initiatives in Aspen. I believe strongly in investing in a local community, and this is something that I have a longstanding history of doing.”
He went on to recount his getting to know the surrounding communities in Sri Lanka when developing Amangalla (one of two Aman resorts in the country).
“We work with several hotels’ food and industry programs — which provide local school leaders with a knowledge of the hotel operation,” he said. “Amankora (in Bhutan), which is actually one of my favorite places, we supported the reconstruction of [a 16th-century fortress]. Amanjiwo (in Java, Indonesia), we supported the local community with the creation of a waste-sorting system. And I dream of meeting with their local governments to understand the growing needs, to the next project we can support.”
Aspen will be no different, he continued.
“Over the course of construction, we look forward to understand the needs of the Aspen community in depth so we can contribute and make positive, lasting impact.”
All in all, Doronin said he employs roughly 6,500 people worldwide through Aman — which doesn’t account for the thousands more that call OKO Group their employer. Each of them continued receiving their paychecks without interruption throughout the pandemic, regardless of a property’s performance amidst shut-downs and differing governments’ regulations.
He says these things not to brag, but rather to defend himself against what he’s been reading in columns and letters to the editor in the Aspen newspapers, he said. While he doesn’t regret the purchase — the opportunity for which came to his attention through a friend — he hinted at some regret in not initiating a conversation with the community sooner.
“I do feel I have been unfairly understood by the Aspen community,” he allowed. “Maybe we should have had a dialogue earlier to avoid that. But you know, I’m a private person and so I try not to talk [publicly] often. You cannot choose where you are born, but you can choose what you do.”
The proposed Gorsuch Haus was just one part of a larger vision for the a reimagined Aspen Mountain base area. In addition to the boutique hotel pitched to voters, the Lift One Lodge — planned at 104,000 square feet — a new telemix lift (a mix of chairs and gondola cabins), base area and skier return located along Dean Street were all part of what became collectively known as the Lift One corridor project. Under the vision, in addition to moving the current Lift 1 lower down the mountain, a relocated Skiers Chalet Lodge (currently on Gilbert Street) will be converted into a shared space between SkiCo as a ticket office and the Aspen Historical Society, which will use the space to create a museum.
“I see the potential for this site — which is … difficult to find in Aspen. So I believe in my special feeling that it will be able to deliver a good project because I believe in the long-term investment. When I invest in the long-term, it’s an investment that reflect long-term commitment from me, from my company,” he said. “And if you’re talking about my personal opinion on [the] real estate market, the real estate market holds very high premium compared to other destinations — which is a testament to being an excellent place to spend your free time and joy time.
He went on to note that building a resort — in the pre-development stages, he doesn’t yet know whether the future hotel will be an Aman resort or under a different brand, but he will be involved in the decision — on Aspen Mountain is only meaningful because of the year-round community at its base.
“Aspen boasts incredible summer and winter seasons … as well as rich cultural programs through the year, through museums, so people can spend a long time in Aspen enjoying the nature and both seasons,” he said.
By: Megan Tackett I The Aspen Daily News I March 31, 2022