In the early 1980s, south Miami Beach was an eyesore — a landscape of garbage and discarded auto parts. A good place to buy dope or get robbed.
Charles Cheezem saw something more in the beachfront property called South Beach and paid $11 million for 20 acres. In 1985, he broke ground at South Pointe Towers, a condominium complex on the site of an abandoned dog track.
Nearly 25 years later, professional models roller-blade down Ocean Drive or pose on white sand beneath blue sky. Even in a depressed economy, penthouses still can sell for up to $15 million.
Mr. Cheezem sold his company before the renewal of South Beach accelerated. But his gamble is regarded as the purchase that got it started when other developers were afraid to bite. He made even larger investments in Pinellas County, making Cheezem Development Corp. (CDC) the largest home builder in the state in the early 1960s, one who foresaw retirement communities and the condominium boom.
He endured the crises of the real estate market, but always re-emerged using charm, ingenuity and an unbendable will. Mr. Cheezem died Friday of congestive heart failure. He was 87.
A tough guy who grew up in the Depression, Mr. Cheezem played Clemson Tigers football and fought in World War II. A German bullet just missed his spine. He took home a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, his family said.
Starting in 1952, Mr. Cheezem, built homes throughout the state, but concentrated mostly on Pinellas County, where he built more than 2,500 homes.
Projects included the SeaTowers in Sand Key and Madeira Beach, Patrician Point and the 1,200-home Ridgewood Groves in Seminole, one of Florida's first retirement communities.
In 1960, Mr. Cheezem was among the top home builders in the nation, according to House and Home Magazine. During a housing bust a few years later, he nearly went belly-up.
His staff shrank from nearly 90 to a secretary and a bookkeeper. His then-wife, Carol, went to work managing the Patrician Point swimming pool.
Mr. Cheezem stayed doggedly optimistic.
"He never doubted the outcome for a second," said son Mike Cheezem, 56, one of three sons who followed their father into the building business. "He was the kind of guy who could sleep through just about anything."
That can-do spirit might have saved the company.
With virtually no cash, Mr. Cheezem gave land back to creditors or sold it for little profit. In 1966, he convinced a Madeira Beach bank that it needed his adjacent parcel for parking. He parlayed the $45,000 sale into a down payment on condos in Madeira Beach. He built the Madeira SeaTowers by borrowing the money and giving up 25 percent ownership to the lender.
"Where other people would look at him like he was in a big mess and in big trouble, he had the perseverance and the vision that he could come out of that economic turmoil and trouble better and better than anyone else," said former CDC vice president Allen Harper, 64. "He was a survivor and a winner."
The 1970s presented Mr. Cheezem with an opportunity to treat his original niche market — retirees — to hassle-free apartments they would own. The age of high-rise condominiums had begun.
"I think he liked the maintenance-free aspect of retirement living with all the amenities," said Steve McAuliffe, a vice president of JMC Communities, headed by developer Mike Cheezem. "He felt that was his market."
While business associates respected Mr. Cheezem, his single-minded attention to work was not always easy for others to live with, son Mike acknowledged. His marriage to Carol ended in divorce.
"I'm a big starter," he told the St. Petersburg Times in the early 1980s. "But when a project blossoms, I want to go on to the next thing. I have to make myself finish."
He made a few enemies along the way. Sand Key environmentalists fought SeaTowers and neighboring condominium towers. He granted SeaTowers residents the right to control their own property and recreation facilities, but only after a two-year fight.
By the late 1970s, he had identified another untapped market: affluent Latin Americans. He bought property on Brickell Key near downtown Miami and had people standing in line in 1980 to put down 10 percent on condominiums that ranged from $70,000 to $650,000. He set up sales offices in Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia.
Brickell Key remains a prime, mixed-use development. South Pointe in South Beach showed even greater promise.
"Where else can you get 20 acres on the ocean just five minutes away from downtown USA?" Mr. Cheezem told Florida Trend in 1983. The project broke ground in 1985 but foundered the same year. Faced with plunging stock prices and numerous properties threatened with foreclosure, Mr. Cheezem sold controlling interest in the company for $10 million.
Former CDC vice president Eddie Avila remembers going to the closing with Mr. Cheezem, holding the envelope containing the shares of stock. "It was almost like he was holding a baby in his arms," he said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.