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Developer Kyle Mowitz goes where grass is greenest: clean energy market

Angel Mendez, left, Kyle Mowitz, center, and Mark Robbins are partners in Imperium Cos., which is looking to develop a one-stop shop for renewable energy in Dover.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Angel Mendez, left, Kyle Mowitz, center, and Mark Robbins are partners in Imperium Cos., which is looking to develop a one-stop shop for renewable energy in Dover.

Google Kyle Mowitz, and the MySpace profile for his high-school garage band shows up.

His college fraternity brothers come to important business meetings for moral support.

Community activists, who seesaw between praising his initiative and questioning his character, refer to him and his cohorts as "the boys."

The 29-year-old chief executive is also at the center of what could be the largest green energy development of its kind in the state — possibly even the country — for an old phosphate mine in east Hillsborough. It would combine at least four types of energy production on one site.

Mowitz says the $580 million development could bring the county 600 jobs and national prestige. As the head of development firm the Imperium Cos. in Sunrise, he's in charge of pitching the proposed 3,000-acre green industrial complex to a famously development-averse community of Dover.

Blond and occasionally bearded, Mowitz has fewer gray hairs than most developers who present their plans to commissioners, but Imperium is the first developer to get a proposal for the phosphate mine land past the county approval process.

This project has become more about mission than money, Mowitz said.

"It's exciting to do things in your home state," Mowitz said. "This is our baby."

• • •

Mowitz has been working as a developer since 2003 — the last nondevelopment job he had was at a pool supply store in high school — but his experience extends to his childhood in the small town of Port Orange near Daytona Beach, where his father worked in real estate and development.

"I'm sure he absorbed a certain amount by osmosis if nothing else," said Frank Mowitz, 58, who now runs Trycon Development in Orlando. "He's just like a sponge. … tell him something, and he absorbs it and he doesn't forget it."

The younger Mowitz said his dad would take him on site trips and in helicopters over projects, but development wasn't always something he dreamed of doing.

"Truth be told, I was actually kind of an environmentalist when I was a young kid, so there was a rift there," he said. "But as you grow older, you realize the way the world works, and I kind of fell in love with development."

While getting his bachelor's degree at Florida State University's College of Business, Mowitz spent two summers interning at the Sembler Co. in St. Petersburg, which his father credits for giving him "the bug" to go after a career in the business. Eric Carr, a Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity brother at FSU, remembered that while other friends spent their summers taking trips and having fun, Mowitz worked.

"A lot of kids in college are kind of floating through, not sure what they want to do with themselves," Carr said. "He's a guy that really knows what he wants, and he really is aggressive and gets after it."

After graduating from FSU, Mowitz spent four years at Safety Harbor's Paradise Development selecting potential project sites, including developments in North Carolina and South Florida.

Mowitz's supervisor at Paradise, executive vice president George Kidman, said Mowitz was ambitious and successful for someone hired out of college.

Three years ago, Mowitz, along with Paradise colleagues Mark Robbins, 51, and Angel Mendez, 38, decided to start their own company.

"For someone as young as him, that was a big step to take," Kidman said. "We've been around for 20 years, and we're pretty successful, and to just step out and do your own thing took some guts."

It was a move that surprised Mowitz's family, said his brother, Justin, 33, who practices construction law in Gainesville. It wasn't a great time for the real estate market, and they worried he had overreached.

But Mowitz, being a drummer, is creative, his brother said. He finds ways to work around problems.

"One thing you've got to understand about my brother is, 'no' has never been very high in his vocabulary," Justin Mowitz said. "He just doesn't accept the idea."

• • •

When the real estate market slumped, Mowitz and his partners looked outside the traditional sector for development they could make profitable.

They saw promise in the renewable energy market.

"You can always try to pick the right time, but based on the experience we all had, we knew we could get something done," said Mendez, one of Imperium's executive vice presidents.

Mendez and Robbins, the company's other executive vice president, say Mowitz's age is irrelevant. They said their differing areas of expertise complement each other: Mendez has a civil engineering background, and Robbins has 31 years of development experience.

The experience required for a green industry developer isn't that different from building a shopping center, said Mowitz, who occasionally jokes about secretly being 45.

"It's a development deal with energy technology on top of it," he said.

The developers started looking for the site that became the local project about a year and a half ago. Ever since then, Mowitz's family and friends say it's been constantly on his mind, although he rarely raises his voice or shows excitement when presenting plans to county commissioners or community members.

The Infinitus Renewable Energy Park in Dover, bounded by State Road 60 and Turkey Creek, would house four types of energy production: waste to gas, solar energy, aquaculture and hydroponic agriculture. It would have production facilities, office buildings and research centers on one site.

The energy produced by solar panels or gasification would be sold to power companies. Ponds on the land would house tilapia, which would be farmed and sold. Research centers would be devoted to renewable energy studies, such as ways to make solar energy more affordable.

Imperium will be in charge of the site for the next 20 years, or until it sells, Mowitz said.

Imperium promises the park will bring 600 permanent jobs to the area and more than a thousand temporary construction positions. If the project breaks ground by the end of this year, it qualifies for $100 million to $150 million in federal stimulus money set aside for green energy.

Mowitz said getting the money necessary for the project shouldn't be a problem. Imperium's partners remain confidential, but the company has plans to finance the project through a combination of private investment, bonds and debt.

• • •

It's an offer the county government, as well as some Dover residents, find attractive.

The east Hillsborough community, which usually has a not-in-my-back-yard reaction to developers' requests, has been cautiously receptive to Imperium's advances.

Some have balked at side effects of the plan, such as increased traffic and extending county urban services like water and utilities. Many neighbors who speak up at county hearings, though, have come to believe it's a better option than just another apartment complex.

Mowitz said he understands homeowners' concerns; they'll have to deal with the complex long after Imperium has moved on. He thinks, though, that the benefits outweigh the concerns.

"It's really hard to argue (against) a project like this," Mowitz said. "I think there's always drawbacks to anything."

Some community members remain suspicious.

George Niemann, a community activist who lives in Dover, said he felt deceived after Imperium rejected his proposal to have a citizens advisory panel oversee the development process.

"I have lost all respect for Imperium Development," Niemann said.

In response, Mowitz said the type of advisory panel Niemann and others requested isn't legally feasible. He offered to have additional community meetings to discuss zoning plans.

"We told him we'd be happy to help him with anything we could, but we would never agree to anything we can't sign," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, we've lived up to everything we've promised."

Development can be responsible, he said. It doesn't have to be an eyesore or community hassle.

"Any development, if well planned and done with thought, can be a good development," Mowitz said. "You're never going to get away from growth. Growth is essential to the system."

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Hilary Lehman can be reached at hlehman@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2441.

Developer Kyle Mowitz goes where grass is greenest: clean energy market 06/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 25, 2010 9:35pm]
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