A close-knit family specializing in multimillion-dollar renovation projects has been building up the Fort Myers skyline for years. How do they keep it all together?
MacFarlane Group CEO Bob MacFarlane has overseen residential and commercial development projects since the 1970s. That gives him the experience to determine what projects will likely work, and which ones are a tad riskier.
“I refer to today's developer as 'El Burro,'” says MacFarlane. “You pack him up with all kinds of responsibilities, load him up with debt, give him a slap on the fanny and he goes uphill. At the top, if the economy is good, the 'burro' gets dinner.”
The MacFarlane Group is a family affair and has had lots of good dinners over the years.
Bob MacFarlane's son, Mark MacFarlane, brings the skills in construction management, while daughter Rebekah MacFarlane Barney's expertise is in finance acquisition. Through their combined effort, the MacFarlanes, along with MacFarlane Group founding partner Oded Meltzer, have handled $2 billion in real estate transactions, development, construction and renovations.
Since the early 2000s, the development focus has narrowed to downtown Fort Myers, starting with three luxury condo towers: the Beau Rivage, Riviera and St. Tropez, $150 million in projects completed in 2006. “We were fortunate to have just caught the market at a good time. With the Beau, nothing had been built on the river in 22 years,” says Bob MacFarlane.
During development of the Beau Rivage, Bob MacFarlane says officials with the Community Redevelopment Agency thought he was “nuts” for pursuing that project. “It was not that good of a neighborhood,” he remembers, stating that “people of the evening” were seen working the streets — even in midday.
One year later a fellow developer, billionaire Miami builder Jorge Perez, built a neighboring set of towers, The Oasis. Bob MacFarlane describes Perez as “a very bright, capable guy,” who built “a nicer set of buildings.”
Adds MacFarlane: “Unfortunately, he got hit with the downside of the recession.”
The MacFarlane Group now has two high-rise waterfront projects in Fort Myers in the works — one part of a large redevelopment underway across downtown. One MacFarlane Group project is Campo Felice, a $90 million, resort-style, high-rise senior living community currently in its second stage of development. The other project, Prima Luce, is a two-tower, 22-story luxury condo community totaling 220 units. Condos in that project are listed in the $200,000 to $900,000 price range.
The three MacFarlanes partially attribute the long-term success of the firm to each one's ability to play off each other's strengths and weaknesses. Mark MacFarlane, for example, says few business partners can create a level of intimacy like theirs without spending decades together. “We know how each of us thinks, so we know what they would do in a situation, which is rare,” he says.
MacFarlane Barney backs her brother. “I can review a contract now and know what he needs changed without having to go to him,” she says. “He in-kind trusts me that I will do that.”
She also appreciates the openness they share. Says MacFarlane Barney: “Whether we like it or not, we'll tell you the truth. Our intention is to look after each other and do what is best for the project.”
During the planning stages of Campo Felice, Bob MacFarlane says the family gathered in an open forum to state their hesitancies on any part of the project before they moved forward. One example was adjusting the location of the mailroom to open up a direct view of the river from the lobby entrance. “We voiced them one after another. It took a week, and we removed all those hesitancies,” he says.
Each member of the MacFarlane trio has their specialized area of expertise, but, in all kinds of projects, it's their unified mission that motivates them. That mission, says MacFarlane Barney, is to help “people live better lives, either by revitalizing a neighborhood, restoring a building, or helping a community.”
The firm has also been successful because Mark MacFarlane says the family is never married to a plan. “The real key,” he says, “is going in with a plan but being flexible to see what really works.”
Sophisticated and unconventional
The MacFarlane Group's niche, says MacFarlane Barney, is finding sophisticated financing for each project, especially the unconventional ones.
For example, the MacFarlanes' took interest in a waterfront restoration project, the Historic Samuel Colt Gun Factory, in Hartford, Conn., in the 2000s. MacFarlane Barney recalls her father “touring the dilapidated area, with buildings falling down and brownfields, yet remarking 'wow, this is such a beautiful site,'” she says. “He saw promise and beauty where others saw obstacles.”
MacFarlane Barney secured $190 million to restore the site using city grants, state grants and federal appropriations. “The Colt factory was the alphabet soup of financing,” she adds.
Historical preservation presented challenges in logistics and cost an additional $20 million. Bob MacFarlane, for instance, thought it was “a shame” to cover up the massive angled glass windows in the football-field-sized manufacturing building on the site — designed to conserve electricity centuries ago. So the MacFarlanes raised the floor about 2 feet to install sewer, electricity and plumbing lines below, while preserving the character of the building.
The 17 buildings on site have been repurposed into a museum, a headquarters for an insurance software company, loft-style apartments and a school for autistic children. “What evidenced our social responsibility in restoring these buildings is that it did become a national historic landmark,” says MacFarlane Barney. “It really reactivated that area.”
Mark MacFarlane, like his sister, says the Colt project and Campo Felice are evidence of his father's ability to “see the possibility of a building.”
For Campo Felice, the MacFarlane Group purchased the former Sheraton Hotel in downtown Fort Myers that sat empty for nearly a decade. Mark MacFarlane says his father “had the vision to see that this could be repurposed into senior living with the layout, the water view and the amenity space.”
The $90 million project in the downtown Fort Myers' historic district will be opening in phases beginning later this year.
In studying options for Campo Felice, the MacFarlanes discovered most senior living environments were established in a reactionary capacity to meet the medical needs of an aging population.
In response, they designed Campo Felice to meet senior lifestyle wants and filling in needs, such as the assisted-living and memory-care phase. The MacFarlane Group invested in amenities and social opportunities, including areas to entertain, day trips to local attractions and a full-time activities director.
“Research shows that people age well when there is deep community connection,”says MacFarlane Barney.
Another selling point with Campo Felice, says Bob MacFarlane, is the prime spot downtown. “You can always build something at a very high price,” he says. “But in this particular case, to keep the pricing moderate, within the competition and yet have a superior location” is a compelling selling point for Campo Felice.
The MacFarlanes say their affinity for Fort Myers grew after the success of the Beau Rivage, Riviera and St. Tropez high-rises. “The Beau was the first one where the city reached out into the public-private relationship with the developer to get a project going,” says Mark MacFarlane.
“The city of Fort Myers has been extremely helpful in providing (tax-increment) financing, which has allowed us to develop projects that otherwise may not have been possible,” MacFarlane Barney adds. “Fort Myers is business-friendly and a big reason why we continue to develop in the downtown area.”
Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson, in an email, credits the MacFarlane development team's projects as “a catalyst for Fort Myers and beyond.”
The MacFarlanes believe Downtown Fort Myers is ripe for multi-generational growth, yet won't fall prey to the fast-paced nature of bigger metropolitan cities like Miami. That's why they love it so much.
“What I like about Fort Myers is that it is a small city and you do feel such an impact with these development projects,” says MacFarlane Barney. “I want to be part of the revitalization. Changing the landscape, changing a building, changing a community.”
The MacFarlane Group's impact on Fort Myers covers a wide swath. Past and current projects include:
• Campo Felice: A $90 million, resort-style high-rise senior living community in its second, and last, stage of development in downtown Fort Myers. Phase two will include assisted-living and memory care units. Project is in a onetime Sheraton that sat empty for nearly a decade;
• The Beau, St. Tropez and Riviera: A trio of luxury-style condo towers totaling $150 million completed between 2004-2006. They were the first waterfront towers built on the Caloosahatchee River after a lull of development in the River District for decades;
• Prima Luce: A 220-unit private waterfront residential condo high-rise community in the historic River District of downtown Fort Myers. Project consists of a pair of 22-story towers.
(This story was updated to reflect the correct date of the Historic Samuel Colt Gun Factory project; the expected completion date of the Campo Felice project; and the difference in project ownership between the MacFarlane Group, Bob MacFarlane and the MacFarlane family.)