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Despite rough market, developer sells luxury condos in St. Petersburg

“It’s just like the video,” Melissa Riddlesworth, right, said as she and her husband, Michael, entered the social room at the Ovation with Mike Cheezem, left, head of JMC Communities.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

“It’s just like the video,” Melissa Riddlesworth, right, said as she and her husband, Michael, entered the social room at the Ovation with Mike Cheezem, left, head of JMC Communities.

ST. PETERSBURG — JMC Communities CEO Mike Cheezem waits cheerfully Friday morning in the lobby of Ovation, his swank, 27-story, 45-unit condo in the heart of Beach Drive in this city's downtown.

Workers are still cleaning windows and buffing fixtures. Some signature glass sculptures have yet to be delivered. Ovation's 10-plus-person concierge team is grouped behind the lobby desk in a training session before it officially starts providing 24/7 services to elite residential customers.

Cheezem's very first condo sale in the waterfront tower just closed. He's personally there to hand the new owners, Michael and Melissa Riddlesworth, a bottle of champagne and a gift certificate to dine at the nearby Parkshore Grill.

"What detail," Michael Riddlesworth, a former home builder, marvels as he tours Ovation's social rooms, fourth-floor outdoor pool area and fitness center. The couple, formerly of Lutz among other diverse residences, move in next month.

Melissa Riddlesworth says they were drawn to Ovation by word of mouth and impressed by a video presentation of the condo before it was built.

"The video shows all the men in gray and all the women in bikinis," she laughs. "It must be aimed at trophy wives."

One sale down, 44 to go.

In such a dire economy, in a real estate market awash in apocalyptic reports of foreclosures, delinquencies, underwater mortgages and plummeting price values, Cheezem should be in high-stress mode.

Other high-end condos, including elegant Signature Place just a few blocks away, have faced price cuts, wrestled with nervous bank lenders and battled buyers now anxious to bail out of their contracts.

The Ovation project has not been a cakewalk, Cheezem concedes. But he says he has not had to cut prices, which start at $1.2 million for 3,657-square-foott and larger residences, each accessible by private elevator.

Lender Bank of America is not breathing down his neck, he insists, noting that JMC successfully borrowed (and repaid) three-quarters of a billion dollars over the past 30 years. Street-level retail space is more than half spoken for with a jewelry store, gallery and Ovation's sales office.

Two thirds of the tower's units have been sold. Cheezem, 56, says he expects most of them to close by early November.

And what of the remaining third? Give him a year, Cheezem says. They, too, will be sold.

What about wary lenders less and less willing to provide a mortgage on a Florida condo? The bulk of Ovation owners pay cash, Cheezem explains. But he admits three or four buyers will not close on their condos. To help others, he's even sent some of his own people to advise buyers struggling to sell their area homes on how to make their properties stand out in this tough market.

Cheezem's no stranger to upscale catering and development. Father Charles Cheezem, who passed away this month, was Florida's biggest home builder in the early 1960s.

In 2000, the younger Cheezem's JMC built and sold out a Beach Drive waterfront condo called the Florencia. And in Tampa, the company built and sold out the Bellamy high-rise on Bayshore Boulevard. JMC's also been active in the Clearwater Beach area, where the firm's Sandpearl condo and resort is up and running.

But for the majority of Ovation buyers, the condo tower will be a primary residence, not a second home or vacation spot.

The rough economy has not completely ignored Cheezem's world. JMC operates its own construction company and is its own contractor, so the decline in recent development has meant layoffs. JMC has about 50 employees now, about half what it had four years ago.

Nor does Cheezem currently have a new project in the works. Financing is tight for new development, he admits, but he sees some easing ahead.

The soft-spoken Cheezem is a veteran of Tampa Bay and the nuances of high-end residential development. He said his staff brainstormed over a name for the waterfront condo, and the name Ovation stood out quickly.

It is not always the case in picking project names, he says.

On Ovation's 18th floor, two showroom condos boast modern and traditional decorating styles. Each unit has three balconies and 180-degree views. One of the two, jazzed up by interior designers, has an enormous master bathroom and a shower big enough to accommodate a couple of parked cars.

Beach Drive, which fronts downtown St. Petersburg's waterfront park, still has some other upscale condos struggling to fill their residences. But Cheezem expects the area will stabilize as the region's economy improves, and as retail business activity strengthens.

He likens the St. Petersburg waterfront to downtown Sarasota's. He even hints Beach Drive may eventually eclipse Sarasota's heralded St. Armands Circle for tony shopping and dining.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:Michael Riddlesworth is the name of the first buyer to close on a condo in St. Petersburg’s Ovation condo tower. His first name was incorrect in a Sunday Business story about the condo project.

Despite rough market, developer sells luxury condos in St. Petersburg 08/21/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 6:52pm]
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