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Business Observer Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021 7 months ago

Real estate investor separates fact from fiction

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A Fort Myers property owner has learned history and stories aren't always the same.
by: Louis Llovio Commercial Real Estate Editor

You can almost see it.

Thomas Edison and Henry Ford riding up the Caloosahatchee River from their estates a mile away to the dock of Jack’s Bar in Fort Myers. It’s a scorching day in Southwest Florida. The sky is brilliant as the sun begins to fade. The two American geniuses sit at the bar hunched over notebooks and chatting up locals over a drink. Or two.

This is the Fort Myers of 1899, and Jack’s is a bustling bar on the river, the kind of place where both big and small gather to socialize. A pier lined with boats stretches 90 feet out into the river and, when night falls, well, these are still the pioneer days Florida, so who knows what happens when the sun goes down.

Jack’s Bar was on what is now Riverside Drive and on a site that, decades later, would house a crab processing plant.

Roger Hutchison, the 59-year-old president and CEO of military contractor CRI, has owned it since 2011. He redeveloped the 1.5-acre property into a 27,300-square-foot office building that’s home to an international law firm and his own company.

He named it Jack’s Place.

That’s because he was so taken by the history behind the property that he bought it for $1 million 10 years ago when he was relocating his companies from Wisconsin to Fort Myers.

He’d been in the market for a property for some time but never found exactly what he was looking for.

But when he visited the site on Riverside Drive and heard the story about Jack’s Bar, and that Thomas Edison and Henry Ford frequented it, he was blown away. Hutchison, an innovator and entrepreneur, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to share the same hallowed ground and air as two of the greatest innovators and entrepreneurs in history.

“I thought anyone who could have a bar and restaurant right here on the river in 1899, and it’s on the first plat, survey of the city of Fort Myers, and Ford and Edison went to it, well that’s just got to be the coolest place in town,” he says. 

He made an offer and within a day or two, bought it for the $1 million price tag.

Now, a decade later, he’s selling the property. A deal for $3.5 million to a New York investment firm fell through Dec. 19. But Hutchison believes another buyer will step in soon. 

Whether a buyer will be swayed by the story of Edison and Ford bellying up to the bar on a hot Florida day is not known. And, even if the buyer is someone who embraces that story, it wouldn’t make a difference.

You see, here’s the thing about Jack’s Bar: It never existed. The story isn’t true.

“It’s kind of like the most giant white lie I’ve been told in my life,” says Hutchison. “There was nothing malevolent that hurt me. It was a hell of a good story. It just wasn’t true.”  

Fact

It’s not uncommon for the subject of a newspaper story to be unavailable, at first, for an interview. Sometimes there are press agents in the middle micromanaging calls, sometimes travel is involved, sometime schedules and deadlines just don’t sync up.

Hutchison’s response when contacted was unique.

“I am away on a project for my primary work as a military contractor until Dec. 15th so not available to schedule a call at this time,” he emailed in response. “I make high-end computers for the military, and recently, virtual reality flight simulators. I also make a line of products evaluated by NSA to destroy classified data on electronic media.”

Hutchison started CRI, then CD Rom Inc., in Golden, Colorado in 1988. A year later he was selling single speed CD-ROM drives for $1,000. By 1991, it was No. 184 on Inc. magazine's top 500 list, with $1.5 million in annual sales.

In 2000, the company began to branch into a service that would destroy digital records on CD-ROMs and DVD disks for the military using technology Hutchison developed. Then, in 2004, Hutchison started D3 Services to help companies destroy sensitive data from CD-ROMs, DVD disks and computer hard drives and later a founded a sister company, eTriage, to help companies retrieve data from these electronic storage devices.

Today all three operate as CRI. All the businesses moved to Fort Myers in 2009 and has operated out of Jack’s Place since 2011.

Hutchison says in the last few years, CRI has focused on making high-end computers and artificial intelligence-based systems “that are not based on CPU engines, but GPU engines.” 

A GPU — graphical processing unit — “is a chip-based processor that processes information based on visual or graphical information and not simple binary coding, such as a CPU or central processing unit that most people are familiar with,” he says. 

The company has two main product lines these days, both primarily for the military.  The first is mobile virtual reality flight simulators using the GPU based computers.  The systems train pilots and mechanics who maintain fixed-wing aircrafts and helicopters. The second line of products are devices to destroy classified information on electronic media. Hutchison declines to disclose sales or revenue data.

“If you watch the movie ‘Snowden,’ by Oliver Stone, at minute 33, Snowden is being punished for accessing a database of personnel with security clearances,” he says.  “His punishment is to be sent into the communications room at the embassy where there are a mountain of CD discs that need to be destroyed.  The device he uses to destroy them is a DX-CD2.  That is one of my products.”  

Fiction

For the first three years after buying the property and redeveloping it, Hutchison told the story about Jack’s Bar far and wide including to a writer working on a story for the Business Observer. Like many legends that grow in cities, no one questioned the veracity of it.

“I put it on the description of the property,” he says. “I had the whole elaborate story that I had been told, that it was one of the most unique properties in all of Fort Myers.

“I actually wrote a whole profile on the property. I let anyone know that wanted to visit. I told them the story. I kept telling people a false story for three years. A really good false story.”

The truth came out when Hutchison wanted to get a copy of the map from 1899 showing Jack’s Bar and went to look up county property records. He gave the address to the woman working behind the counter that day and she went to the back to get a copy of the plat.

She came back a few minutes later and said there was nothing there at the time. He asked the woman if she was sure, so she brought the map out so Hutchison could see for himself.

“Sure enough, there were absolutely no buildings there. There was no nothing.”

Thinking he possibly had the year wrong, he asked here to check the next map, which was from 1905. Nothing.

They got through 1935 and found no Jack’s Bar.

Turns out, he says, the property was not developed until around World War II, when the crab processing plant opened. A part of the building jutted into the river and there was a 400-foot pier with a tiki hut at the end where fishermen sold the crabs they’d caught.

He believes it remained a processing plant until the mid-1980s. It changed hands three times, he believes, and for a while Otis Worldwide, the elevator company, owned it. A food bank had space in the front for 16 years.

When Hutchison bought it, the building was in shambles, with vines growing through the roof. He converted it into Class A office space and spent about $500,000 in improvements.

The future

What happens next is unclear. The sale was scheduled to close Dec. 21, but Hutchison says he knows several potential buyers so is not worried that it will sell quickly for $3.5 million. When it does, he’s going to reinvest the profits into several other properties through a 1031 exchange and will move the company offices within the city.

Despite the history turning out not to be what he’d been told, Hutchison holds no grudges. He understands legends grow and history, even if it's not true sometimes, has a life of its own.

George Washington chopping down a cherry tree is a myth, according to the website for Mount Vernon, the first president’s home. And Paul Revere, one of three riders warning the British were coming, was captured on the road outside of Lexington and never arrived in Concord, according to The Paul Revere House in Boston.

But the stories we all heard and have taken to heart live on, they have become legends we cling to. And, really, as long as they don’t hurt anyone, aren’t the stories sometimes better and more fun than the reality?

Asked why he didn’t just keep the legend alive and keep a good yarn going, Hutchison says he simply can’t do that.

 “My primary profession, you know, is, I’m a Department of Defense contractor. I make things for the military,” he says. “I couldn’t perpetuate an untruth after I knew it.”

Yet, he adds a moment later, “if Jack’s Place, in the future, with the new owner, ever turns into a bar or restaurant, it would be one hell of a great story.”   

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