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Empty tower doesn't enhance his reputation

Published Oct. 10, 2005

Real estate developer William Mack didn't shy away from the steep slopes when he skied Vail, Colo., a few years ago with his friend James Cusack.

The multi-millionaire just negotiated the tough slopes conservatively.

"He does it just like he operates in the development business," Cusack said. "Bill does high-risk things cautiously."

Driven for success and deeply concerned about his reputation, Mack has taken several high-profile risks in Tampa. But the reputation he is so concerned about has suffered from his cautious approach.

In the mid-1980s, Mack backed out of a contract to build the Tampa Convention Center. The city's demands that he also build a nearby hotel were too risky, he said.

Despite two efforts to buy existing Major League Baseball teams in the 1980s, Mack demurred when he couldhave bid on a franchise for a new team. Too expensive, he said.

And now Mack is among the investors in an effort to build a $120-million hockey arena near Tampa Stadium. So far, construction has been delayed for more than a year and the project seems to be in some jeopardy.

"He doesn't go wide open down black slopes," Cusack said.

Yet one project would seem to belie Bill Mack's cautious approach. In 1988, he broke ground on a Tampa skyscraper. He raised a building into a falling real estate market. Two other buildings then shot up into the Tampa skyline, making the going much tougher for Mack's building.

Completed 18 months ago, the salmon-colored granite building doesn't have a single tenant. Mackrecently made one of his many trips from his New Jersey office to Tampa to try to sell his skyscraper to the Hillsborough County government.

If he can sell the building, he will maintain his record of never having lost a property through foreclosure to a bank.

In a series of whirlwind conferences, Mack met with county commissioners, County Administrator Fred Karl and the news media. With about 15 minutes left, he dashed for the airport.

On the way out, he was asked if building the new skyscraper had been a mistake.

"Certainly, time has proved that there is too much of a surplus of space," Mack said. "We did not expect the other buildings (to be built)."

He doesn't flaunt his wealth

Bill Mack does not like to admit to mistakes. He is a proud and serious man.

He has been invited to dress up as a pirate and join other prominent business people in Tampa's annual Gasparilla parade, but he has declined the invitation.

Wearing thick glasses in wire frames, Mack answers questions in a calm, measured tone. He talks carefully, revealing little emotion or detail.

The questions that might pique the public's interest _ for example, those about his personal finances _ he considers to be totally inappropriate.

In his dark, well-tailored suit, white shirt and conservative tie, Mack dresses the role of the wealthy developer. But he does not flaunt his wealth.

From his office in Rochelle Park, N.J., the 52-year-old developer oversees a real estate empire that is more than three times the size of the office space in downtown Tampa.

He has built extensively in the Northeast, and is one of the largest developers of office and industrial space in New Jersey. A few years ago, the Mack family fortune was estimated at about $300-million.

Despite the downturn in the real estate market, Mack said his empire is no danger of collapsing. He said he has little debt and high occupancy rates in his buildings.

"We have fared a lot better than the real estate community as a whole," Mack said.

And he doesn't think he has a bad record in Tampa.

"Every developer, for every project he develops, does spade work for six or seven," he said.

When the Mack family was looking for an investment in Tampa in 1979, they called attorney James Cusack.

Mack and Cusack have known each other for 35 years. Cusack's family lived across the street from the Mack family's summer home on Long Island.

Since then, Mack has been involved in many important projects in the Tampa Bay area, but he has a mixed record of success.

The convention center deal ended up in court: The city sued Mack; Mack sued back. Mack won a settlement of $750,000.

"We felt that a hotel was chancy and that we needed time to evaluate financially whether it could be done," he recalled. "When we balked at that, then the negotiations terminated and deteriorated."

Mack says his decision has been proven correct.

"The proof of the pudding is that no hotel ever got built because it's not economically viable."

Mack was also a lead investor in an effort to bring baseball to Tampa. Two deals to buy existing teams fell through. But Mack doesn't see those as failures. In fact, he recounts them as near-success stories.

"We came the closest to anybody in being able to do it," Mack said.

Why didn't Mack then bid for a new franchise?

"I did not participate myself because it would have been economic suicide," he said, referring to the $95-million cost of a new team.

Now Mack is a minority investor in a company that plans to build a $120-million arena for Tampa Bay's new professional hockey franchise.

Construction has been delayed for a year as Mack's partnership and the hockey team negotiate a lease.

The developer distances himself from the arena project. He stresses that it is just one of dozens of deals in which he is only a minority investor.

His brother Earle is managing the investment for him, Mack said.

But if the coliseum is built, Mack will recoup some of his investment from the baseball effort. Construction plans for the hockey arena call for paying more than $3-million to the old baseball group.

"I'm very hopeful it will be a profitable investment," he said.

But he also cautioned, "Circumstances and conditions are more difficult today then they were a year ago."

To Mack, the key is not to fall in love with a project, no matter how popular it is.

"Keep very high ethics and standards, but you must be rational about what you are doing," Mack said.

Profit's not a motive in selling tower

Mack's most visible projects in Tampa are the two skyscrapers bearing his family's name. One Mack Center, built in 1981, was part of the first wave of skyscrapers in Tampa during the 1980s. Mack was the first outside developer to commit to Tampa. One Mack Center is between 80 and 90 percent occupied, Mack said.

The other skyscraper, Two Mack Center, is a different story. Completed in 1990, Two Mack still doesn't have any tenants.

But Mack doesn't see this as a personal mistake. His building, begun in 1988, was the first of three skyscrapers to break ground during the most recent building wave. If it had been the only one, or one of two, he said, it wouldn't be in the shape it's in today.

He said Two Mack Center is the victim of the battered real estate market.

"Every single building in downtown (Tampa) and every single building in the United States is suffering," he said.

Mack boasts that he has never given a property back to a lender or been sued by one.

Some who have done business with Mack have a hard time believing it, but Mack says it's not the promise of profit that is motivating him to sell his beleaguered skyscraper.

To the contrary, Mack says at the price he is offering the county, between $30-million and $37-million, he would take a loss. He refuses to say how much that loss would be.

What motivates him, Mack says, is a desire to protect his reputation.

There is no indication that Mack might default on the $60-million mortgage, although it is sure to become an increasing drain on his assets. But if he sells the building to the county, Mack said, he is certain there will be no default.

Selling Two Mack Center "is to the benefit of our reputation," he said. "Our reputation is worth as much as money."