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Hardy Returns

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  • | 6:53 a.m. August 30, 2013
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Paul Hardy is well known in Southwest Florida real estate circles for developing upscale master-planned communities such as Grandezza, Olde Cypress, The Strand and Worthington.

In all, Hardy developed more than 5,000 homes on more than 5,000 acres in Lee and Collier counties.

But more people may remember Hardy for being ensnared in the “Stadium Naples” corruption case and subsequent trials that rocked Collier County in the late 1990s and early 2000s. State prosecutors dropped racketeering charges against Hardy after he maintained his innocence, but not before he says he spent $1 million to defend himself.

Before he was cleared of all charges, Hardy refused a plea deal from prosecutors despite the cost and potential penalty. “If I'd taken the plea, I wouldn't be in business today,” he says.

Now, as the real estate market is recovering, Hardy is busy forming land deals, backed by wealthy investors seeking high returns. The Stadium Naples ordeal hasn't impeded his ability to raise capital or do deals. “It has not followed me,” he says. “Everyone in town knows what happened.”

A reinvigorated Hardy, 58, is scouting for opportunities in places like North Fort Myers, Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres, where the real estate recovery that started two years ago is just now starting to emerge. Land deals in Collier County are scarce. “There's really very little left,” he says.

Together with Realtor Jessica Russo and backed by an undisclosed Latin American investor who lives in Naples, Hardy acquired 292 acres in North Fort Myers near the intersection of U.S. 41 and Del Prado Boulevard for $3.35 million, or about $11,000 an acre. The previous owner paid $22 million in February 2006.

Hardy has rezoned the development for 2,000 homes for senior housing and controls another parcel with room for another 721 homes, but he plans to sell the land to a developer or builder. “I'm not in the development business anymore, I'm in the land-speculation business,” he says.

Builders have been actively seeking an increasingly scarce number of lots as new-home sales rise. “All of the national builders have contacted me and it's all a function of scarcity,” Hardy says. “They need land to feed their machine.”

What's more, government bureaucracy and tight lending has kept developers from buying and permitting additional land. “There's still no bank financing for just about anything,” he says. “You can't borrow any money.”

Wealthy private investors seeking high returns are investing in deals such as the one in North Fort Myers, which Hardy has named Estates of Entrada. Hardy says a national builder recently paid $30,000 an acre for land near the Estates, three times what he paid for his land in early 2012. A nearby Publix and veterans' hospital gives him additional confidence in the investment. “It's going to be a very profitable transaction,” Hardy says.

Hardy, who works in sandals and shorts at the office, says working with private investors makes it easier to move more quickly on opportunistic land deals than waiting for more traditional financing. Hardy says he closed on the North Fort Myers land in 30 days. “I did not labor over the decision,” he says. “I love to do business with a handshake.”

Separately, Hardy is acquiring 140 lots inside a development called Town Lakes in Lehigh Acres, another area of Lee County hit hard by the downturn. Hardy isn't disclosing what he's paying for the lots (public records aren't yet available), but he says there's pent-up demand from buyers looking for new homes.

Hardy says homebuilders are seeking to rebuild land inventories depleted during the downturn and need lots that are ready to be built on. “My phone is starting to ring,” he says. “The housing industry is what will bring the economy back.”


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