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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 12, 2003 14 years ago

Developer and Lawyer (Tampa edition)

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George Rahdert is a well-known First Amendment lawyer. His lesser known development company owns nearly 50 properties.

Developer and Lawyer (Tampa edition)

George Rahdert is a well-known First Amendment lawyer. His lesser known development company owns nearly 50 properties.

By Bob Andelman

Special to the Review

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, which career is fairest of them all?

Real estate?

Or law?

George Rahdert doesn't need a magic mirror to tell him the answer. He can follow his heart, which points to the law, or his head, which says location, location, location.

Luckily for him, no one is expecting the 52-year-old St. Petersburg attorney to choose one or the other. The married father of four boys can continue as managing partner of his law firm, Rahdert Steele Bryan Bole & Reynolds PA, which represents the Times Publishing Co. and the Lutheran Church of Florida. And he can sustain his running of the 10-employee Virtual Realty Construction Co., which now controls 46 properties in downtown St. Petersburg.

Like many attorneys, Rahdert puts in a 12-hour day on average. But for every two hours he spends on the law, Rahdert puts in one on real estate development.

"I've been involved in real estate adventures for most of my adult life," Rahdert says. "It just got more visible."

Maybe too visible. The Tampa Tribune reported in April on several stop-work orders issued against a general contractor working on Rahdert properties and three enforcement cases for violating or possibly violating asbestos notification rules. And during the run-up to St. Petersburg's November vote on whether or not to keep Albert Whitted Airport, the Weekly Planet attempted to make Rahdert's real estate interests - cross-referenced with his role as the Times' attorney - into a campaign issue. Both made for gossipy reads, but neither tarred the attorney or slowed him in either endeavor.

"You live by the sword, you die by the sword," Rahdert says of the press sniping. "The Weekly Planet is kind of the local ankle-biter. Their job is to criticize anyone and everyone associated with the mainstream press. I figure I'm fair game. It would be hypocritical if I didn't stand up to a little press criticism since I've been on the side of dishing out so much.

"They were trying to say I would profit from a couple of little lots in the glide path - which I refer to as a crash zone," he continues. "I wouldn't gain anything if they became zoned high rise. And they criticized me for being involved in a townhouse development. I'm a lawyer whose name is in the corporate papers. I don't have an interest. My client, Tim Clemmons, isn't gaining from the ability to build higher; he's building three stories and selling it off. They hate the St. Petersburg Times. Where they have a shot at the Times, they're going to hold their nose, mess over Tim Clemmons, and take a shot at the Times."

Ironically, Rahdert says, his economic interests were better served by citizens who voted to preserve the airport. This, despite his having favored its closing.

"I own about nine acres of developable real estate south of the University of South Florida. If the university can't grow vertically, it has to grow horizontally. So my position there was really based on what I thought was in the best interests of the community, the university and the hospitals. But you might say I hedged my bets."

Rahdert owns properties on 3rd Street South, on the south side of the local landmark known as "Thrill Hill." One of these is the old Sealtest building, for which Rahdert gained a historic designation. On 4th Street South, he owns the site of the former Wedgwood Inn. He also engineered purchases by All Childrens Hospital and the Poynter Institute of property in the area for a long-term hold against future expansion.

With his own properties, which are primarily historic renovations such as the State Theater and Mansion by the Bay, Rahdert tries to keep two or three properties on active duty at all times. "If one gets shut down, I can take my crew and work on something else, keeping everybody employed," he says. "I have a group of carpenters on staff, men and women, who are adept at historic preservation. Having my own staff of people is a much more efficient, less expensive, less frustrating way to do restoration projects."

Real estate is in the Rahdert blood. His dad taught management as business professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, putting his knowledge to practical use by acquiring farms and associated rental properties. In 1982, both of Rahdert's parents died and he started managing the family real estate interests. One of his first strategies was diversifying into Florida real estate and he's demonstrated an active hand ever since.

"Real estate is a significant sideline," Rahdert says. "I actually spend the majority of my time practicing law. What I find with real estate is that I particularly like doing it because I can pay attention to the big picture and delegate. I have a good team to delegate. In law you have to get down to the details and do it yourself."

Rahdert is an adherent to the 80/20 rule; he believes that 80% of his accomplishments come from 20% of his efforts. "It's easier," he says, "to make money in real estate than it is in law."

Then why continue practicing?

"I just like being a lawyer," Rahdert says. "I have some pretty well-established client relationships. I enjoy the context of having worked with the same folks and same issues for a long time."

Times Publishing Co. - the parent of the St. Petersburg Times, Poynter Institute, Congressional Quarterly, Governing and Florida Trend - takes about half of Rahdert's time. "It could be 100% if I let it," he says. "I try to delegate projects and do other things. I've always had the philosophy that a good press lawyer is someone who knows something about a lot of things. If all I knew were First Amendment law, I wouldn't have the breadth of experience to do what I do. My father would give the same advice to his business students: 'Don't take business in college. Learn something else, such as engineering that creates a separate interest. Then get your MBA for business training.' "

Rahdert wanted to be a cowboy when he was four, but made his college applications based on the schools' marine science programs. He never followed through on that interest and when it came time for graduate school, he made a last minute switch from business to law.

Law has been a smooth choice for the most part, although Rahdert hit a bump a few years ago when his partner of almost 15 years, Patricia Fields Anderson, announced her desire to go it alone.

"It was melancholy in a way to lose somebody who was associated with me for so long. I often thought Anderson was part of my last name," he says. "It was her decision completely. And yeah, it took me by surprise."

Anderson says it was nothing personal against Rahdert - "I just got tired of doing the same thing." Since leaving Anderson has actually been in the news more than Rahdert in recent years. She represents Bob and Mary Schindler, parents of Terri Schiavo, in their efforts to keep Terri alive.

"She's obviously hugely engaged in what she is doing," Rahdert says. "We e-mail more than we talk. But we're both busy people. I hold no animosity at all. I'm glad I'm not involved in the Schiavo case. Pat is a high profile person. Whatever she's doing is going to be pretty significant and pretty well documented by the press."

When asked about his own career highlights, Rahdert talks about his success as a lawyer first.

"Without doubt, the most significant highlight in my career was defending the Times from the (Robert) Bass takeover," he says. "Part of that was then defending the Poynter Institute from an IRS challenge."

Outside of the Tampa Bay area, the case for which Rahdert is probably best known has nothing to do with the First Amendment. Instead, it was a civil rights case, Nassau County School Board v. Arline that shook the federal government.

"That case recognized that people with communicable diseases, including AIDS, are protected from discrimination," he says. "That was a U.S. Supreme Court case that gave rise to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the mid-1980s, I advocated civil rights for people suffering with AIDS. The Reagan Administration came into the Supreme Court and argued against that position. That was one heck of an experience as a lawyer."

In another case before the Supreme Court, Rahdert argued successfully on behalf of the Florida Star, a predominantly African-American newspaper in Jacksonville.

"It was the right of the press to publish truthful information even where it hurts, in this case it was the name of a rape victim," he says. "No one wants to make a rape victim's life more unpleasant. But the issue was whether the state could censor what's published in a newspaper. It's a matter of editorial judgment rather than censorship.

"The things I value most are the times I practiced law and made a difference," Rahdert says.

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