His smiling face on an Interstate 275 billboard made Grady Pridgen a poster boy for boomtime commercial development.
Now, foreclosure filings from St. Petersburg to New Port Richey have turned him into a symbol of a boom gone bust.
Pridgen and his companies have defaulted on loans totaling more than $60 million since the Great Recession wrecked the real estate market. He is also fighting foreclosures on three St. Petersburg homes, each valued at less than $140,000, court records show.
Pridgen's problems are far from unique.
Developers rode the money train to the top of the real estate mountain in Florida's "go-go days," said St. Petersburg restaurateur Dan Harvey Jr., who helped develop some properties on Beach Drive NE. He has been friends with Pridgen for more than 25 years.
When million-dollar deals hit the table, developers funneled the profits immediately into other projects, Harvey said.
"We were all a little overextended," he said. "Credit was pretty easy to come by. We were all smelling the same perfume.
"I went from the penthouse to the outhouse," Harvey said, laughing. "I lost everything in real estate."
The market will eventually bounce back, and, said those who know Pridgen, so will he.
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Pridgen would not comment for this story, but court records detail the deteriorating state of his companies' finances:
• In August 2009, Mercantile Bank foreclosed on properties in Largo, New Port Richey and Clearwater after Pridgen and his companies defaulted on loans in excess of $6.8 million.
• Things got worse the next month.
CapMark Bank of Utah foreclosed on 185 acres in the Gateway Centre Business Park after Pridgen's companies defaulted on loans for $25 million. The king of the Tampa Bay flea markets, Hardy Huntley, bought the undeveloped property for a fraction of the cost.
Wachovia Bank seized vacant land in Pinellas County after Pridgen's companies defaulted on loans totaling $5.5 million.
After the companies defaulted on another loan, this one for $1.1 million, First Commercial Bank of Tampa Bay foreclosed on land in Pinellas County he used as collateral.
Also in September 2009, Wells Fargo took back 24 prime acres in Dunedin after Pridgen's companies defaulted on a $9.9 million loan. The city's biggest property has been vacant since Pridgen bought it from Nielsen Media Research in 2005. He had lofty goals for a mixed-use development but never produced development plans.
"There was a lot of optimism" then, said Bob Ironsmith, director of economic development.
Dunedin's largest tract of property is once again on the market.
• In late 2009, HSBC Bank filed foreclosure notices on three St. Petersburg homes owned by Pridgen and his companies. The cases are ongoing.
• In March 2010, Wells Fargo seized 1.8 acres in downtown St. Petersburg that Pridgen planned to use for a mixed-use project called Bayway Lofts. He and his related businesses defaulted on a $4.6 million loan.
• In August 2010, BB&T seized property in Pinellas County used as collateral to guarantee a $7.1 million loan.
Pridgen did record at least one large sale since 2009.
He sold nearly 21 acres in August 2009 for $61.6 million to Valpak Property Holdings LLC, Pinellas County property records show. The company had leased the land under its 470,000-square-foot Gateway facility from Pridgen's companies.
Craig Sher, executive chairman of the Sembler Co., understands what happened to Pridgen and other developers when the real estate bubble burst.
"Vacant land can get you in trouble when the music stops,'' Sher said. He sees better days ahead for Pridgen.
"Grady's a good developer, broker and manager," Sher said. "He's a smart guy."
St. Petersburg developer Frank Maggio noted that Pridgen's name still surfaces when projects are discussed in the area.
"Grady would be at the top of my list," Maggio said. "He helped put St. Pete and Tampa Bay on the map."
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After graduating from the University of Florida in 1981, Pridgen embraced real estate and learned the craft under John Barger, an icon of Pinellas industrial development in the 1980s. After a decade in sales and leasing, Pridgen formed his own company in 1993 and started amassing his holdings.
In 2007, Pridgen was nominated for national and local awards for top business executives. He also became an advocate for sustainable development.
Pridgen used to be seen in some of St. Petersburg's prominent social circles but has disappeared the past two years, acquaintances said. After buying former baseball star Dwight Gooden's house in Pinellas Point in 2003, Pridgen sold the 10,000-square-foot home in April 2009 for $1.255 million.
He now lives in the former First Congregational United Church of Christ in St. Petersburg. He planned to convert the church to a restaurant and the parish hall to a townhouse for his family.
Melody Stang, owner of Melody Stang Realty and a close friend of Pridgen and his wife, said Pridgen has devoted his life to making St. Petersburg a better place in which to live and work. Pridgen, Harvey and other developers had a vision for the city, but the economy stalled the building projects, she said.
The public, Stang said, hasn't heard the last from them.
"They will all emerge at the top of their game," she said. "They're trying to work out their losses. They all have giant hearts."
News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Mark Puente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markapuente.