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Boomtime developer poster boy Grady Pridgen is back, but lower-key

Developer Grady Pridgen of St. Petersburg poses at the Ibis Walk apartment complex in St. Petersburg. He experienced big losses during the 2008 economic downturn, but has made a comeback. Pridgen was the developer of the complex. [SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jun. 30, 2017

A few months ago, the newsletter of Tampa's Westchase Community Association ran a story about plans for 38 new townhomes. The project described was a modest one, nothing like the headline-making deals that once characterized its developer.

Grady Pridgen.

During the boom years of the early 2000s, no Tampa Bay developer had a higher profile than Pridgen. Every day, thousands of motorists on I-275 in Pinellas County sped by his Gateway Business Centre and a billboard featuring his Crest-perfect smile next to the slogan: "Not Just Another Pretty Place."

By the time Pridgen was in his 40s, he had amassed a real estate portfolio estimated at $4 billion. Then the recession hit and banks began foreclosing. By 2011, Pridgen and his companies had defaulted on loans totaling more than $60 million.

Grady Pridgen dropped out of sight.

"Wow, that's a name from the past," Craig Sher, executive chairman of the Sembler Company, said recently when asked about the man he used to regularly meet for lunch "I've run into him maybe once in the last 10 years."

"We were friendly competitors," said Roger Broderick, a Pinellas developer, ''but I haven't seen him in years."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Crash tames realty titan Grady Pridgen, but don't count him out, peers say

Those comments don't surprise Pridgen, even as he emerges from self-imposed obscurity. Now 58, still smiling but with strands of silver in the perfectly-coiffed hair, he's developing an assisted living center in Brandon. He has the townhome project, and plans for some prime acreage around Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg.

But "yeah," Pridgen says, "I've been pretty quiet."

****

For better or worse, developers have made Florida into what it is today — a semi-tropical phantasmagoria of office parks, high-rises, strip shopping centers and sprawling subdivisions.

"A real developer has never seen a deal that they don't absolutely love," says Robert Stern, a Tampa real estate attorney. "Developers are a different breed — they are confident, they are fearless and they are not afraid of debt or risk or the downside."

That could well sum up Pridgen.

After getting a real estate degree from the University of Florida, he apprenticed under John Barger, one of Tampa Bay's top industrial developers, then left in 1993 to start his own company.

Pridgen's first major deal was Gateway Business Centre near 1-275 and Gandy Boulevard. To promote it, he tied a big banner between two pine trees; storm winds ripped it in two.

"I had about 10 people call saying, 'Grady, your sign is down,'" Pridgen remembers. Hence, the billboard, prompting "a lot of ribbing," he says, but also bringing in big- name tenants like Jabil and Lockheed-Martin.

Throughout the boom, Pridgen was the developer to watch.

At $4.9 million, he outbid other players for a city-owned sod farm near the Gateway Centre that he wanted for La Entrada, a grandiose project with nearly 2,500 homes. He acquired half of a block near St. Petersburg Old Northeast for Bayway Lofts, a 42-story tower with a hotel and rooftop restaurant. In 2004, he and a partner snagged the Imperial Yacht Basin at the Tampa end of the Gandy Bridge for $25 million and sold it a year later for $54-million.

There were smaller deals, too, but even those drew attention.

In 2000, Pridgen bought a former church and parish hall in downtown St. Petersburg for $400,000. The church was to be a restaurant, and the hall converted into a home, an office and a studio for his wife, Jodi, an artist. Three years later, he paid $1 million for a Pinellas Point mansion built by former baseball star Dwight Gooden.

When did Pridgen realize the good times were over? The answer comes fast.

"August 2008. That's when 10-year interest-only money went away. I thought I'd covered my bases by diversifying, if one or two sectors go down, other sectors will be okay. But when everything goes down, it's hard to fathom."

No longer was Pridgen the "Poster Boy" of commercial real estate, as a news story once proclaimed. Mercantile Bank foreclosed on properties in Largo, New Port Richey and Clearwater. Wells Fargo took back 24 acres in Dunedin. Wachovia and a Utah bank seized other land.

"He's a really nice guy but I think he grew way too fast," Sher of the Sembler Company says. "Of course those were brutal times for a lot of people."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Lenders press Tampa Bay developer Grady Pridgen for unpaid debts

If there was once thing that made the crash easier to accept, Pridgen now says, it's that he had become used to dealing with bad news.

In 2007, "my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember when the words came out of the doctor's' mouth, everything changed. The recession was just money; the biggest loss is time. When you invest so much time and effort away from family and friends you can never get it back (The crash) was a blessing in disguise."

Pridgen suddenly had plenty of time to spend with his wife and kids. One summer, they piled in the car, headed for Tennessee and spent two weeks canoeing and zip-lining. Then, "because I didn't have anything pressing development-wise," they drove on to North Carolina and spent several more weeks visiting relatives.

Back in Florida, Pridgen became a founding board member of Keystone Prep High School for students with anxiety, dyslexia and mild to moderate learning disabilities. (Two of his four children attend the Odessa school). When his father no longer could live alone, Pridgen helped move him to Florida. That got him thinking about the need for senior housing as millions of baby boomers enter their 70s.

"Even the places that were supposed to be nice were very depressing," he says. "I felt there was a lot of opportunity for improvement."

***

A block south of Highway 60 in Brandon, a 140-bed assisted living and memory care center is on target for a January completion. Pridgen sees it as a potential model for similar facilities in small cities.

"These (senior) communities are expensive to build and operate so the majority of big players are in the top 100, 200 ZIP Codes," Pridgen says. "The challenge for the rest of the ZIP Codes is to develop a plan that would work in a tertiary market."

Pridgen is partnering with another developer on the project, financed with a $21.2 million loan from Whitney Bank. Which raises the question: Why do banks still loan money to developers after they've defaulted on millions of dollars in mortgages?

"If they were forthright with the bank as to the back story and circumstances, then banks are overly forgiving," says Stern, the real estate attorney. "If you and I missed a car payment, we would be in deep trouble but if I borrow multitudes of net worth, it's just a developer being a developer."

The assisted living center is just one of the projects marking Pridgen's comeback.

He bought Dave's Aqua Lounge on Gandy Boulevard for $400,000 four years ago and has been assembling parcels south of there since 1998. He expects to put a retail project in place of the long-closed lounge and develop townhomes looking out at Weedon Island.

"We have 2,000 feet of water frontage, we'll have a boardwalk, we should have some plans by the end of the year," he says.

One project that Pridgen kept his hand in even through the down times is Ibis Walk, a 401-unit apartment community in the Gateway area completed two years ago for around $55 million. Pridgen says he got interested in multi-family housing because companies moving into the area kept asking him where their employees would live.

Over the years, Ibis Walk went through several changes as interest "rates went up and down," Pridgen says. "The nice thing is, this area kept improving so it got nicer and nicer."

Pridgen and partner Celotex Research, which provided the land, sold the complex in September for $68 million. Yet it remains a source of pride for Pridgen, who recently pointed out its unusual features. Among them: charging stations for electric cars and courtyards landscaped with trees that were "banked" during construction, then replanted.

"I've always considered myself a green developer," Pridgen says.

He still owns the adjacent shopping plaza and a vacant lot, prime for commercial development, on a busy street that leads to the Howard Frankland Bridge. He predicts Gateway will continue to grow because of its central location, companies with high-paying jobs and apartment complexes like Ibis Walk with relatively affordable rents.

Pridgen doesn't understand the rush to build so many luxury apartments in downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa .

"We are at the point of saturation for expensive apartments," he says. "How many people are there who can pay $3,000 (a month)? With downtown apartments, the only logical explanation for me is that apartments are (eventually) going to be condos."

Ironically, the site he once planned for the 42-story Bayway Lofts in downtown St. Petersburg is now home to an eight-story, 309-unit apartment building.

"Bayway Lofts was ahead of its time," he says. "I thought that what happened in St. Petersburg would have happened 23 years ago but what they built is validation for what I got approved. It brought people downtown."

Another site Pridgen lost to foreclosure, La Entrada in the Gateway area, is now the massive headquarters of Great Bay Distributors. He is philosophical about the projects he never saw to fruition.

"They are all my little babies but they found good homes," he says. "My work didn't go without benefit to the community and I can still feel good about it."

Today, Pridgen feels good, too, and grateful that his wife's health has recovered. The family divides their time between a lakefront house in Odessa bought for $735,000 five years ago and the St. Petersburg parish hall. It remains his office as well as official homestead now valued at just over $1 million. He's still mulling plans for the former church and its 600-seat theater.

Looking back, is there anything Pridgen would have done differently?

"I would have listened to my wife. In 2005 she told me we should sell everything. I had bitten off so much and had so many things going on."

He pauses.

"She was right. I didn't need all those things, but I was having fun."

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate

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