Wright or Wrong?
It was the best of times, the summer of 1970 when we first came down to buy Gold Coast magazine. We had to move fast. There was no time for exhaustive research, but the market sent the message. Construction was everywhere. The Galt Ocean Mile was a row of cranes sticking their steel necks high into the sun. Houses and condos sold as fast as they could be announced. A classy fellow named Merritt Taylor had sold his Philadelphia suburban transportation company for a bundle and plunged it into real estate down here. He bought a condo development, land out west and beachfront property all the way up to Hutchinson Island. “Land banking,” he called it.
As proof of the reality of this boom we took back Sunday copies of the Fort Lauderdale News and The Miami Herald and dropped them on a table in front of our investment group. They were so heavy the table nearly exploded. This could not miss. Well, just four years later the area had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. We recall only Flint, Mich., was ahead of us. There were condo units for sale everywhere. Banks were foreclosing left and right and slashing prices to move inventory. Some people got great deals. And some people lost their shirts.
When he was on that buying spree we heard some smart people say Taylor was paying too much. We think he joined a lot of people whose deals did not work. He left the area and I never heard from him again until his obit appeared a few years ago in The Philadelphia Inquirer. It was weeks after his death, which tells you something. There was some stuff about his Philadelphia transit company, but no mention that at one time he was a player in Florida real estate.
At the time one of the most prominent real estate people in town told me that during that period in the mid-70s all but three of the biggest builders in Broward County either went bankrupt or sold in distress. We felt it, too. We had to sell Miami Magazine, and we were forced to take a small payment on a big advertising bill from a company that busted out in Palm Beach County; a company with a big Philadelphia name for which I had worked a college summer construction job. Ironic. We took a beating from a number of developers and learned a new term: “deed back in lieu of foreclosure.”
At the time we thought Florida would never see another real estate market like that one, but we sure did. Two of them were in the 80s, and now the last three years. How bad is it? Well, we give you Glenn Wright. People hated what he built a few years ago. He knocked down some cute smaller houses and replaced them with McMansions that made the people next door feel like they were living in servants' quarters. Worse still, he seemed to be making a fortune. Worse than that, he made other builders think they could do the same, and they did. Our neighborhood got hit hard. “Land usury,” said an offended architect and neighbor, watching builders force big houses onto small lots, eliminating lawns, sometimes cutting down old trees and butchering ancient oaks to make room for their tall, wide shouldered houses.
It, of course, caught up to them. Wright has been in the papers for two years, with numerous suits from people who paid for big houses he never built, all kinds of foreclosure news and a disaster in his major development. Phones unanswered. One report had him $100 million in debt. And now he gets arrested, accused of stealing $20,000 in homeowners fees from people who moved into his distressed development. Not that we bleed for him, but maybe he needed the money. He isn’t the first.