Renaissance Man

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2006

To some, multitasking might mean checking e-mail while on a conference call. To Tom Dabney, it means simultaneously juggling his interests in real estate, water management, agriculture, banking and business.

Truth is, it's becoming hard to find a local issue with which Dabney isn't involved. As the founder and president of real estate development firm Gulf Coast Property Services, he's behind a number of existing and upcoming shopping centers, office buildings and residential properties. As a partner in Sarasota County's Hi Hat Ranch, he's got a stake in the citrus, cattle and timber industries. As chair-elect of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, he's working to strengthen the business climate and to find solutions to the workforce housing problem. As a founding director of LandMark Bank, he's invested in the financial arena. And as a member of the governing board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), he has a critical hand in managing the region's water supply.

A Sarasota resident since 1980, Dabney is playing a major role in the area's future development. "His passion for insuring that we are able to balance water needs among the various users comes from a unique perspective, because of his background in economic development and agriculture," says Betsy Benac, vice president of the planning, design and engineering firm WilsonMiller who serves on the Manasota Basin Board with Dabney. "He has a very good understanding of the issues. From what I've seen, he really wants to balance all of the competing needs, and, to me, that's what it's going to be about as we go forward trying to manage our growth."


Born in Coral Gables in 1950, Dabney, like many men of his generation, served in Vietnam as a member of the U.S. Army. He then attended Florida State University, graduating with a bachelor's degree in business administration.

In 1975 he married Carolyn Turner, whose family owns Hi Hat Ranch, a 10,000-acre cattle, citrus and timber operation still in business today. The couple was living in Oklahoma when Carolyn died suddenly in 1980. With a newborn daughter to care for, Dabney decided to move back to Florida to be closer to family.

He went to work for Bob Morris at RAMAR Group Companies, a large residential development company headquartered in Sarasota. He and Morris then created the commercial development firm Equity Properties Group. In 1985, Dabney started his own company, Gulf Coast Property Services, because "I wanted to stay closer to home and spend more nights in my own bed." He formed a strategic partnership with the Sembler Company in St. Petersburg, developing commercial properties like the Landings Shopping Center in Sarasota. That partnership continues today, but Dabney has also developed, leased and managed other commercial properties alone.

At the same time, Dabney was serving as a partner in Hi Hat Ranch. His agricultural and real estate interests have recently merged with the Forest at Hi Hat Ranch, a development of 54 five-acre home sites being built on a portion of the ranch. The tremendous interest he's seen in the development leads him to believe that the single-family housing market remains strong. "We have a waiting list with 60 people on it, and we've never put a sign on the property," he says. "It's overwhelming how many people we've had track us down."

Dabney envisions a bright outlook for the commercial real estate sector as well. "I think the suburban commercial real estate market for the foreseeable future will continue to be strong, with high demand and tight supply," he says. "As this market grows in population, new retailers look at our market who wouldn't look at us before because we were smaller."

Because of his development experience and expertise, Dabney has served stints on both the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (1989-1992) and the Sarasota County planning commission (1991-1995). It was during his time on the latter that he first met Lisa Carlton, who now serves as a Florida state senator for District 23.

"I really consider him one of my very early mentors as far as public service [is concerned]," says Carlton. "I was very young and very new to the planning commission, and our assigned seats were right next to each other. Tom Dabney was the most prepared member of any advisory board that I think I've ever served on. He would read the information prior and was dedicated to making sure that he fully understood all of the issues that were before the board."


Several years after serving on the county planning commission together, Dabney's and Carlton's paths crossed again, this time in SWFWMD. When a seat on the water management district's governing board opened up six years ago, Carlton and fellow state Sen. John McKay asked Dabney if he would consider applying for it. He did, and was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in April 2000. Dabney is now in the middle of his second four-year term.

"My involvement with Hi Hat Ranch gives me a keen sense for the impact that water has in agriculture," says Dabney. And likewise, he says, his role as a developer provides him insight on the cost of water and the impact fees involved with connecting sites to local water systems.

Now chair of the governing board's regulation committee and co-chair ex officio of the Manasota Basin Board (one of SWFWMD's eight basin boards), Dabney served a stint as chair of the governing board from April 2003 to May 2004. "In my year as chair, I feel like I moved the ball down the field on some of the major issues that we faced," he says. That included forming partnerships with Tampa Bay Water and the Peace River/Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority aimed at addressing future water supply needs. "We have an ample water supply to meet current and projected needs through 2015," he says. "And we have identified additional water supplies in the district's water supply plan that can take it out beyond 2025."

As far as ensuring our water supply into the distant future, Dabney believes conservation is the answer-using reclaimed water for agriculture and landscaping, and enacting local ordinances that require updated plumbing in new construction and certain home renovations. Dabney has worked to educate residents about the Florida Yards & Neighborhoods program, developed to solve pollution and water management problems resulting from home and landscape maintenance. He stresses that residents can follow the program's guidelines and still have a yard that's "not just rocks and cactus. It's about having the right plant in the right place and irrigated properly without overusing water, fertilizer or pesticides. When done right, it uses half the water that a traditional lawn would use."

"You can't live here without knowing that water is a primary issue," says Dabney. "But I've been amazed at how interested the citizens in this two-county area are about the issue of water." The 16 counties covered by SWFWMD have an average daily per capita water consumption of 130 gallons. SWFWMD's goal is to get that average down to 120 gallons by 2010. In Sarasota County, the average is already just 86 gallons per person per day. "The development community and government in this region have always been proactive, because they've always been concerned about where the next gallon of water was coming from," says Dabney.


There's no question that water is a hot-button issue on the Suncoast, but another issue that's heating up is the lack of workforce housing. As chair-elect of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, Dabney plans to do his part to help find a solution to that problem. He also plans to focus on healthcare costs and a conference center initiative aimed at bringing more year-round business to the local hospitality industry.

When it comes to growth management, he believes the area is on the right track. But because many jobs are still located in the urban parts of Sarasota and Manatee counties while much of the residential growth is taking place farther and father from the downtown cores, traffic problems won't be going away any time soon. "We will have to put some more lanes on I-75, be more tolerant of peak a.m. and p.m. congestion, and take advantage of every opportunity here for us to build infill housing," he says.

"Some might say we risk destroying the quality of life here by allowing even one more person to move to the region," he continues. "But our quality of life also includes the weather, beaches, recreational opportunities, the casual lifestyle. Because we're building such high-quality communities in this area, our quality of life is not being compromised, in my opinion. The projects that are being developed today, from an environmental standpoint, are efficient, environmentally sensitive and well laid out."

When asked why he chooses to be involved in so many different areas, Dabney references the concept of "civic rent." "Government is run by the people who show up, and the business community needs a voice," he says. "It is business leaders' responsibility to step up and serve and then to move on and let somebody else do it, to serve to the extent that you are valuable."

Dabney relies on a calendar and a personal assistant to help him keep track of all his commitments. "And I've got a wife, Susan, who's very understanding and accepts the fact that I have obligations," he says.

Though typical workdays for Dabney last up to 15 hours, this ambitious father of four still finds time for other pursuits, such as golfing, skiing, hunting and boating. "I play hard, too," he says. "When I don't have to be in the office, I'm not. There has to be some reward."

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