True Believer

By Molly Sinclair McCartney April 30, 2009

Kevin Daves has the uncanny ability--some might say "misfortune"--to launch high-risk, luxury projects just as the national economy goes into free fall.  

He brought The Ritz-Carlton to Sarasota during the dot-com bust of the late ’90s, convinced the hotel company to add condos to its top floors (something the Ritz had never done before), priced the units 100 percent higher than any condos had ever sold for in Sarasota and then opened its doors for business two months after 9/11.

“The timing,” he reflects, “was interesting.”

Now, in the midst of the most serious economic meltdown in decades, Daves is pushing ahead with the ultra-luxury, $600-million Concession golf course community. Cattle graze in fields just outside the black-iron gates that mark the entrance to the 1,232-acre development, which sits on the border of Sarasota and Manatee counties, six miles east of I-75 on University Parkway.

Named after a particular moment in golf sports history when Jack Nicklaus graciously conceded a two-foot putt to British golfer Tony Jacklin in the Ryder Cup, The Concession boasts multimillion-dollar mansions and a Nicklaus-designed golf course set amid moss-draped live oaks and palmetto groves. Golf Digest named it the best new private course of the year in 2006.

Sales are what you might expect in this economy. Of the 234 home sites available, 120 have been sold and 31 homes have been built.

Nonetheless, 100 construction workers are scrambling to finish the sprawling, 33,000-square-foot clubhouse (more than twice the size of the Manatee County Convention Center) by early July. It is one of the biggest new, high-end construction projects in the region. Amenities will include dining rooms (with Beach Bistro’s Sean Murphy creating the menus and ambiance, see page X), locker rooms, card and billiards rooms and a pro shop with a tailor on-call. A team of interior design consultants has been “scouring the European markets for fabulous finds,” Daves says.

Ever the practical optimist, Daves says the real estate slowdown has an upside. Bids for construction came in about 20 percent less than expected, and an abundance of skilled labor has meant that he can finish the clubhouse with top-quality workmanship and complete some of the infrastructure--streets, entryway and fencing--for The Concession.

Even more significant, the weak housing market has inspired Daves to introduce a new business model (he says it's the first in the country) aimed at attracting a new kind of customer to The Concession. His rationale is that many of today’s thrift-oriented consumers want to be mobile and free from the upkeep of a second home. They want to fly to a beautiful, convenient location for short stays in a fully furnished luxury home in a golf club community with just a carry-on bag and a laptop, and then fly out with no worries about security or maintenance.

To capture this market, Daves plans to build a cluster of 16 cottages that can be reserved for use by those who buy cottage memberships. Under this plan, you can reserve a luxury cottage near the driving range, play golf, dine at the clubhouse, take golf lessons and even use The Concession’s 53-foot yacht—moored at Sarasota’s Marina Jack—for socials and sunset cruises on Sarasota Bay.

Each cottage has four master bedroom suites with four master bathrooms, kitchen, living room and screened porch, making it ideal for four couples. The cottage membership costs $8,000 for 28 days (14 days in season and 14 days out of season). That works out to $285 per night for the cottage or $71 per night for a master bedroom suite. And that looks like a bargain compared to the cost of buying a home at The Concession, where home sites start at $800,000, custom homes are $2 million to $3 million each and golf membership can cost as much as $150,000 plus monthly dues of $750. There is one condition: The cottage membership plan requires that you put up a $60,000 deposit. And it has to be paid in the form of a check or similar instrument. Credit cards are not acceptable. Daves expects to complete the first three cottages later this year, and he says that some of them are already reserved.

The $60,000 deposit is refundable at any time the cottage member wants to terminate the arrangement, Daves says. But in the interim, Daves can use those $60,000 deposits to pay for a variety of improvements at The Concession, including furnishings for new cottages, landscaping and so forth.

In addition to attracting customers looking for mobility and flexibility, the cottage membership plan is a way to bring in additional traffic to community. The thinking is that people who come for 28 days and see the amenities may end up deciding to buy a full golf membership and one of the remaining 114 home sites.

“There will be a time when the market will come back, and people will start buying real estate again,” Daves says.  “And though prices have come down, I would not want to be out there selling $5-million condos in the next five years. But I can sell cottage memberships with a [$60,000] refundable deposit.

“These are the times when you have to make your move,” he says about his somewhat unorthodox model. “It’s always hard to do, but in this business you build when other people aren’t, and you stop when other people are. You have to be able to sleep well in order to be able to do this, because it can be tricky."

Daves, 55, exudes the confidence that comes from having presided over plenty of successful projects and few, if any, failures. His successes in recent years include the lawsuit he brought in 2003 against his Ritz-Carlton partners for breach of contract, fraud and conspiracy. The case went to trial in 2006; the jury ruled in his favor and awarded him $44 million in damages. 

“In this business, you can’t have many failures because you don’t get a second chance,” he says. And, so far, Daves has made the right decisions for his professional career.

He grew up in Wichita, Kan., the youngest of three children, in a traditional household. His father was a production engineer at the Boeing plant, where he started at age 18, earning $1 an hour, and continued until he retired at 55. His mother, Rosemary, was a homemaker who went to work as a real estate agent to help pay his tuition expenses at the University of Kansas, where he earned a degree in architecture in 1977.

Daves’ first architecture job was for a small firm in Wichita. But he soon connected with a developer named John McDonald who wanted to do historic restoration. “I basically became the architect for all John’s projects,” Daves says. “It was my responsibility to go find projects, look at whether they made economic sense. I was in my mid to late 20s and I was traveling all over the country, looking for buildings, analyzing cities, trying to determine which ones I thought had a future.”

That turned out to be perfect preparation for jumping into development. “I realized that architects tend to sit in their offices and hope that the great client will come through the door and ask them to do the great project they always wanted to do. I decided to become that client.”

As a Wichita-based developer running his own business, Daves designed the Pioneer Balloon Company’s corporate headquarters and developed two residential neighborhoods.

Then, one day in 1993, the phone rang. It was his former boss, John McDonald, who had moved to Sarasota and had become interested in an old historic building known as the John Ringling Towers. McDonald wanted Daves to examine the building and make a judgment on whether it could and should be restored. “I looked at the building and I could see why it hadn’t been renovated,” Daves says. “It sat way too close to the road. It virtually sat in what is now the right-hand turn lane of U.S. 41. And the construction quality was terrible. They had used seawater to do the concrete and it was flaking off.”

But Daves noticed a "For Sale" sign behind the Ringling Towers. He made some inquiries and learned that the price was $3.5 million for an 11-acre parcel that included the Ringling Towers and the old Karl Bickel Home. “I couldn’t believe there were 11 acres for that price in the middle of a downtown city like Sarasota,” he says. “And it was on the water.”

Daves saw the potential on the site, just as he did the remote acreage surrounded by cattle that is becoming The Concession.

“No one believes in Kevin’s developments more than Kevin,” says realtor Michael Saunders, who worked with Daves to develop the sales center for The Concession when it opened in 2004. “Against all the odds, he is building the clubhouse, providing jobs, fulfilling a commitment to add another component to the project. He has the top golf course and wonderful landscaped large lots for homes, but he needs the centerpiece of the clubhouse. Most developers in this market would have compromised and built something smaller, but this was his vision and he is fulfilling it.”

Daves now devotes all his time to The Concession. He drives to the site daily from his home in a Ritz-Carlton condo overlooking Sarasota Bay. His wife, Lynda, who has a master’s degree in business administration, serves as chief financial officer for their company, Core Development, which is based in their hometown of Wichita, Kan.

“Lynda handles all the finances, which allows me not to have to worry about them,” Daves says. “And she is 100 percent in support of what I do.” That is vital, he says, because “almost everything I do is extremely high-risk.”

Daves says his approach is simple. “I am a long-term investor; I don’t flip. Pretty much every project I do will hopefully be here 100 years from now.” He keeps close tabs on his projects, and he does them one at a time. He tends to be out in front of trends, which he says can make financing and approvals more difficult.

“But I have a strong belief that if you do things right, other people will appreciate it and come with you. I think this is the best country in the world, probably the best state in the country, and Sarasota and Bradenton are probably the best cities. There are obviously times when people look at me and say, ‘What do you see that I don’t see?’ But be patient. That is the main thing in the real estate business.” 

Beach Bistro at The Concession

Beach Bistro proprietor Sean Murphy, known for his Zagat and Golden Spoon award-winning restaurant on Anna Maria, has been working for months with developer Kevin Daves on culinary plans for The Concession Golf Club. The clubhouse restaurant, which is scheduled to open in November, will have inside dining, patio dining outside and an event lawn that can accommodate up to 1,000 people.

Murphy says he won’t offer standard club fare. “I am not going to do ‘it’s Thursday night, so therefore it’s prime rib,’" he says. "I want to graft the Beach Bistro onto The Concession. I want the food to be as beautiful as the golf course.”

Murphy and Daves are exploring the idea of selling culinary memberships to attract customers who otherwise would not be eligible to dine at The Concession. Murphy is optimistic that the community will succeed in spite of today’s economic downturn and the fact that the club is "in the middle of nowhere." Beach Bistro on Anna Maria Island is “in a terrible location,” but draws customers who drive up to an hour or more to get there. “We fill it, and we’ve been doing it for 25 years,” he says.

Filed under
Show Comments