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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 9, 2004 18 years ago

New on the Block

Established Atlanta developer JEBCO Ventures Inc. tackles Sarasota development.

New on the Block

Established Atlanta developer JEBCO Ventures Inc. tackles Sarasota development.

By Sean Roth

Real Estate Editor

Jim Bridges knows he is missing big opportunities, and it really bothers him. For the Georgia native, developing in Sarasota has meant leaving behind longstanding contacts and starting fresh.

But Bridges, president and founder of the Alpharetta, Ga.-based JEBCO Ventures Inc. is taking the change in stride. After more than 30 years in the real estate industry and more than $500 million in property developed, he is willing to wait for the right project.

In the three short years since Bridges first started developing in Sarasota, he has already found a number of major projects to captivate his time.

In 2000, JEBCO Ventures partnered with Leland Properties to co-develop the Phoenix, an 8-story, 13-unit condominium on Golden Gate Point. The $17.5 million project opened in early 2001.

In November 2002, Bridges started construction on a second condominium project on Golden Gate Point: the $22-million two-building, 16-unit Vista Bay Point. GCBR listed that condominium project, 134 Golden Gate Point, as the fifth largest construction project in the Sarasota-Manatee region for the fiscal year (from June 2002 to May 2003) in the Construction and Expansion Guide.

JEBCO Ventures also purchased a small lot at 153 Golden Gate Point to build the 14-unit Grande Point condominium. Bridges expects to start that project this year.

Three weeks ago, JEBCO Ventures bought about 17.7 acres of commercial land at 1301 Tamiami Trail S. in Osprey for a 216,000-square-foot retail strip center, with three outparcels. Bridges says one bank already is committed to occupy one outparcel and negotiations are close on a drug store and another bank. No anchors have been announced. Construction is expected to start later this year.

At the same time, JEBCO Ventures and an 800-pound gorilla of apartment development - the Florida/Atlanta offices of Dallas-based Trammell Crow Residential, submitted a proposal to develop on the highly publicized Palm and Cocoanut avenues property in downtown. The project, called Viale di Palme, would produce 90 apartment/townhome units, 30,000 square feet of retail space and a 555-space parking garage. The JEBCO/Trammell Crow pitch was one of the few proposals that did not ask for tax increment financing from the city.

"These people can develop the project faster without it," says Brent Parker, a partner in the Sarasota-based Parker Walter Group Inc.

Not bad for a relative newcomer to Sarasota, but for Bridges real estate development is something he has been doing for most of his adult life.

After a stint at Lockheed Martin Corp., Bridges began his real estate career working for Housing Systems Inc., an Atlanta apartment developer.

"When I began working there, it was a very small company," he says. "There were only two people there. I would go into these towns in Alabama to look at real estate - pretending to know what I was doing. I would try to find a good site. And, if it wasn't zoned right, we would try to get the landowner to give us an option while we tried to get it rezoned. It was a great job and a great opportunity."

After four years, the company owned several thousand apartment units. It eventually went public.

Stepping Out, Moving South

In 1975, Bridges, at the age of 27, left Housing Systems to found James Edward Bridges Co. or JEBCO.

His first project was a return to his hometown. "I did a shopping center in Manchester, Ga.," Bridges says. "It was going back to my roots. They really needed it."

With no money to put down, Bridges bankrolled the earnest money with his VISA card. With finance and construction help from a co-developer, Bridges completed that first project successfully. Then, as he puts it, he was off to the races.

JEBCO Ventures did a number of projects from Atlanta to Augusta. Its projects ranged from small townhome buildings to large shopping centers.

That very small company grew quickly. By the mid-'80s, JEBCO Ventures was developing about $25 million to $50 million worth of projects a year. The company eventually started doing its own construction work. "We were doing everything," Bridges says. "From ground acquisition through construction. We were not a paper developer; we had all the subcontractors on staff. It grew to be a big headache."

Then in the late '80s early '90s, the bottom fell out. The combination of a recession and the collapse of the savings and loans banking system meant venture capital for the company virtually disappeared. "We had to cut back people and that was really hard," says Bridges. "It was the only thing we could do to survive." Three-fourths of the company's employees were laid-off. JEBCO Ventures, whose employment fluctuated between 75 and 100 people, was left with a lean eight employees.

Slowly economic conditions improved, but Bridges found that the smaller staff was still able to maintain a similar production level.

"We didn't work any harder, just a little smarter," Bridges says. "It just means that when we make a dollar we get to keep a little more. In this business, as any developer will tell you, if you do a bad deal it destroys three good deals. Since then, we made a promise never do a deal unless we have two exit strategies. We will also never over leverage a deal. That way we may not make a profit on a deal but we will at least live to play again."

It was during this recovery period that Bridges found his largest project. It was late 1998, and there were five condominium projects planned for downtown Atlanta. "My wife and I were interested in moving from the suburbs to Buckhead (a well-known neighborhood in Atlanta)," says Bridges. While he was searching for a condominium unit he found a vacant site on Peachtree Street. "There was no magic to it. It was just the perfect site. It was between two traffic signals."

So after a call to an old friend, Curtis Hicks Jr., president of Eagle Real Estate Advisors Inc., an Atlanta-based residential developer, the two closed on the property.

The two partners built the Phoenix, a $55-million, 27-story condominium building. "It was one of the most successful projects," Bridges says. "In my opinion we had the best site (of the six other condominium developments). We had very good marketing ... and we beat a lot of the competition out of the ground."

It was during the construction of the Phoenix in Atlanta that the Bridges family got the bug to move to Florida. "My wife has family in Naples, and we were reaching the point in our life when we were thinking of slowing down," Bridges says. "Naples was ranking pretty high on the radar screen, but I just didn't like it. I wanted more of a social life. So I committed to buy here."

After a failed attempt to buy a Residence Inn, Bridges stumbled across the Phoenix condominium development on Golden Gate Point and bought a unit. A few weeks later, he acquired the project.

From the Phoenix, Bridges then moved on to developing the Vista Bay Point.

"Making the deal is the biggest rush," Bridges says. "I just enjoy the deal. The creation of something. Residential values are substantially higher here than in Atlanta. Commercial values are pretty similar, but most of the larger commercial tracts are controlled by very few individuals."

Bridges also is branching out from real estate development. He is on the board of directors for Integrity Bank in Atlanta and two start-up banks in Florida: Integrity Bank in Jupiter and First American Bank of Osprey.

"That has been very rewarding," Bridges says, "being able to affiliate myself and my company with other professionals. It has been great for networking. It has certainly helped getting to know people more."

Bridges has also opened a design center, Design Nation, in a Sarasota DeSears Appliance & Home Entertainment location. That business, a retail center for a number of interior suppliers, is targeted at developers and the general public.

JEBCO Ventures, which now employs five people, develops about $50 million worth of real estate annually. JEBCO Ventures and its affiliates have assets of $85 million.

"At this stage of my life I feel very fortunate," Bridges says. "I surround myself with qualified, exceptional people. I don't have any development goals. I am looking at a couple of things though. One is a large mixed-use project south of here in Sarasota. We are looking at a condominium project on the water and another smaller commercial project."

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