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Sunday Interview: Mat Swift says urban development 'is a journey without an end'

Posted July 28, 2014    

 Sunday Interview: Mat Swift says urban

development 'is a journey without an end'

By CHUCK WILLIAMS
[email protected] 26, 2014 Updated 16 hours ago
 
Mat Swift has spent more than a quarter of a century helping the W.C. Bradley Co. reshape downtown Columbus.
The company has substantial holdings downtown, and as the president of the company's real estate division, Swift's fingerprints are on many of the substantial downtown projects -- most recently the Chattahoochee River whitewater course.
He recently sat down with Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams to talk about downtown Columbus and a variety of other projects, past and present.
Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
How long have you been working for W.C. Bradley?
26 years.
In what roles?
Well, basically as head of the real estate division. My job is to in effect look at their real estate portfolio and mesh their real estate portfolio with their long-term visionary goals, and try to execute those plans.
You're not a real estate guy by trade, you're an attorney, right?
I was a real estate lawyer by trade, and I represented a number of real estate developers. So, I was involved in a lot of real estate development with my clients.
Then one day Brad Turner, who had just been made COO of the (W.C. Bradley) company, he and Steve Butler called on me and said, "You want to get out of being in the real estate legal business and get into the real estate development business?"
I told them I had five bad closings that day -- I'd do anything to get out of the real estate business. I came over and joined them at that time.
If you look at it, 26 years ago downtown was bottoming out?
Yeah, I think it was. I think if you look back at when (retired W.C. Bradley Co. Chairman) Bill Turner, (retired Synovus Chairman) Jimmy Blanchard and (architect) Rozier Dedwylder -- those three key people -- when they started looking at creating Uptown Columbus and started the vision and the dream of Uptown, it was in the early '80s.
And I can remember literally on one of my first days over here with the Bradley Co. going to an Uptown Columbus Board with Jimmy Blanchard as chairman of the board, and Rozier Dedwylder as the executive director. It was a relatively small board, only eight or nine people at the board meeting and they were talking about a vision for downtown. It was in its infancy stage.
I think we just finished the Rankin development, but we were in the early stages of it and I was just amazed at the vision they were talking about, especially when you looked around downtown. There were a lot of empty buildings and there were a lot of folks who were basically saying it couldn't be done.
This may be a bad way to ask this question, but -- a quarter of a century later -- why did it take so long?
I don't think that's unusual with any urban redevelopments, especially with a third-tiered city. It is a journey without an end, and it is a journey you've got to be prepared to take three steps forward and then get knocked down and have two steps backward, but at least you've gained one step. You do that each and every year, and you go into it with a long-term vision. I've told this to a number of communities -- I've probably talked to over a dozen different communities about urban development, especially in second- and third-tiered cities -- I told them it's not about trying to have a quick fix. It's about a vision. It's about good planning. It's about trying to have every year incremental success (and) you can build off of that success for the next year.
And what happens is it's almost like compounding interest. The more successes you have, the more likely you are to have future successes. And when you start adding up the little bitty successes, all of a sudden they become bigger successes and each one starts leveraging the next. And then you start finding you start growing quicker and quicker. So, this is a long answer to a difficult question, but it's gotten incrementally faster in the later years than it was in the early years. But if you had not planted those foundational seeds up front, we would never be where we are today.
Do you have an example of three steps forward, then getting knocked down?
Going back about the incremental successes, one of the huge things that I think helped uptown Columbus was the RiverWalk. When we built the RiverWalk in the early '90s, that was one of the first projects that everybody in the community got excited about. And everybody in the community felt ownership of it. It was a project that regardless of where you lived in this community, you could bring Aunt Susie from Minnesota to downtown and say, "Let me show you this RiverWalk." And that kind of got a lot of excitement. Right after the RiverWalk, it wasn't too long after that -- that was also tied in with the '92 bicentennial, whatever it was -- and that started building some great, great experiences.
And, right after that we had the Olympics, and part of it was fixing up the stadium, having the softball tournaments down here, and that turned out to be a successful project.
Also during that same time, we had a positive SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) vote that helped build the Civic Center and helped improve the South Commons complex.
So, all of those are three steps forward. Then all of a sudden you'll have a crime element hit downtown. And all of the progress that we had made on trying to make people feel safe -- it's growing, it's moving forward -- all of a sudden some of the naysayers would come out and say, "Oh, I wouldn't go down because of crime or for whatever reason."
Obviously Columbus has had a long-term vision. Whose vision is that?
Well, clearly, with respect to downtown, Bill Turner, Jimmy Blanchard and Rozier Dedwylder were the initial people who said this could be done. First, they had good vision, but also they had the knowledge to know they needed to get help. So, they went ahead and hired the best planning firms, and the very first one they hired was LDR International out of Maryland. And a particular guy -- he's deceased now -- Bert Winterbottom, came in and he was a great communicator, he was a great collaborator, the way he brought the community together.
It's one thing for a few people to have a vision, but if you don't take the vision of those few people and get it out into the community and have other people feel the vision, it won't ever stick. It's never going to work if it's just one or two people's vision. You have to have buy-in from the other people. And that's why those incremental successes become important because the incremental successes cause people to jump onboard, jump on the bandwagon. I think it started out with their vision and then more and more people came onboard that were stakeholders in the downtown. You've got to remember, the original Uptown board were people who were interested in our downtown, but they were also interested in their real estate property values in downtown. There was nothing wrong with that. We made it clear right from the beginning that improving downtown was good for the city, but it's also good for the companies that owned the real estate.
And as long as we were transparent about that, everybody was fine with it. So, you originally had the Uptown people like Bill, Jimmy and Rozier, and then you had all the real estate owners with property downtown. But then what you started seeing is there were a lot of other people coming onboard. A lot of the non-profits had their offices downtown, a lot of the arts were downtown, a lot of the legal and governmental areas were downtown.
So, all of a sudden those stakeholders got bigger and bigger. And then, like I said, the RiverWalk -- you had people living in north Columbus, east Columbus, south Columbus, Phenix City, who were all saying, "Hey, I want to be a part of this." I think that's what's happened and that's what's helped us grow over the years.
What's the single most important event in the redevelopment of downtown Columbus?
That's an interesting question. I've heard Jimmy Blanchard give his answer and Bill Turner give his answer, and various other people. I think you almost have to break it down into sub-parts in that forming of Uptown Columbus to where you had a dedicated, 100-percent person who got up, eat/breathe uptown everyday, was vital to starting the process, and that of course was getting the right person.
And Rozier with his architectural background and his vision and planning, and his ability to show it to somebody, to sell it. To me, you always have to start with the formation of Uptown (Inc.). But I think you also have to look at the various SPLOST votes that we have had -- that has helped -- the movement that has given us money to improve infrastructure and marry that with the various philanthropic sector, the various campaigns, the arts campaign, the CSU campaign.
You marry those two and what you're doing there is you're not only building infrastructure, but you're also building the capital to make them grow. So, the formation of Uptown is sort of one program. The infrastructure of bringing in hard infrastructure like streetscapes, like the Civic Center, like construction of buildings, married with programmatic infrastructure that a lot of the philanthropists brought, all of that leads into what is now, I think, crescendoing with the whitewater that has now totally transformed downtown, both from an internal standpoint of the way people in Columbus see us, as well as external of the people who are now coming to Columbus.
So, it's hard for me to say one particular event, but if I had to say one particular event that is transforming Columbus, I would have to say it would be the whitewater, because that to me is sort of the thing that has taken us from being a really, really great uptown, to a city that now is getting national recognition.
For 30 years people in this town have talked about "It." Is whitewater "It?"
Yeah, I think it's the closest thing we can come to "It." It was real interesting -- we vetted that concept really hard. We spent a lot of money on consultants to try to figure out an "It." And we ultimately concluded that there was no "It" in the form of a Chattanooga, with the Tennessee Aquarium. But what we had was a "them." That we had a number of projects in Columbus that if you added them all up together, they would constitute an "It," but it wasn't just one.
It was the Infantry Museum, it was whitewater, it was Port Columbus, the (Columbus) Museum itself, all of the things we have together that we pieced together -- the RiverCenter, the Springer -- all of those things together constituted a great quality-of-life program. There wasn't just one, but there was a number of them.
You were heavily involved in the whitewater project as a real estate developer. Was there ever a time you didn't think it was going to happen?
Several times. I was with John Turner yesterday and we were talking to two more people. Almost monthly, people come in to hear the story, and I give all the credit to John. Matter of fact, the very first time John mentioned it to me, 15-20 years ago, whenever it was, I said "Well, good luck, John, I hope you have a good time." I didn't think it could be done. It wasn't in my vision. I had other projects and I just thought that was too big of a project to take on.
Did the idea seem crazy to you?
The idea didn't. The idea actually was a pretty neat and practical idea. Both dams were obsolete. Both dams were going to fall out anyway. Being a lawyer, and also being a real estate developer, my mind quickly went to what are the hurdles we've got to jump over.
Now, most deals I know I've got to jump over two or three hurdles, but when John brought this one, I mean there weren't two or three hurdles, this was the 440, and hurdles all the way around the track.
The first hurdle wasn't a hurdle; it was a wall. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, right?
Oh, there were so many walls there. We had issues with the Army Corp of Engineers. We had issues with Georgia Power. We had issues with the historical people. We had issues with FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission). We had issues with Georgia EPD (Environmental Protection Division). We had issues with Indian tribes. I can't begin to tell you the number of hurdles that were out there that John, principally -- but he had a lot of help, I don't want to leave out all the other folks who helped him -- but John in particular has perseverance, he had vision and he had a way of maneuvering through a lot of these hurdles.
We had people within various bureaucracies fighting amongst each other within the bureaucracies. Not only were they fighting against us, but they were fighting against each other. And quite frankly, the Corp of Engineers ended up being one of our biggest allies, and but for them coming onboard and helping us, I don't know if we would have done it. But again, we had hurdles up in Washington just getting FERC to approve it because we had to decommission both damns. FERC is in the business of creating dams, not decommissioning them. So, we had to spend three years on getting that done.
One of the things that is lost in the whole whitewater deal is there were major real estate purchases all the way throughout the deal, that without those real estate purchases it doesn't happen, right?
Exactly. Knock on wood, to some degree, we were a little lucky. The very first time we approached the owner of the Eagle & Phenix Dam, they put an extraordinarily high value on their real estate, because it was still being operated as a damn in a hypo-producing facility, so they were selling it as an ongoing business and we couldn't afford it. It was just way too high.
What was that price?
I'd rather not get into prices, but it was several million, put it that way. So, we were fortuitous, and about six months later lightning hit the upper powerhouse and burned it down. The same time that was happening, Pillowtex was moving out of their mill and there wasn't that much demand for power. They came back to us and said, "We would like them to keep the insurance proceeds (and) we'll drop our price to a more reasonable price." And that's how we ended up buying it.
Can you talk about Phenix City's role as a partner in this project?
Well, it's huge, and I cannot say enough about Mayor Eddie Lowe and the entire council as to their vision and their desire to be a part of this renaissance that we're having on the river. They stepped up to the plate and made monetary commitments to both the hotel and to the college.
We're in the middle right now of the Third Avenue redevelopment plan that's going to be huge. But more important than just things that they've done, is their attitude.
From Day One, it's been a can-do attitude. In the past, there's been a lot of talk of a can-do attitude from the Phenix City people, but they haven't carried forward with some actions. I just think this current mayor and his council, they have been great.
You know for years we've talked about "The river joins us, it doesn't divide us." But their attitude and their absolute persistence that they're going to work with Columbus in a lot of ways has been very refreshing, and as I've told them, I don't think we would have bought Phenix Plaza but for their leadership and their vision and their desire to move Phenix City forward.
It reminds me, and I've told them this, "Y'all's excitement and y'all's enthusiasm and your vision for what you want Phenix City to be reminds me of Uptown Columbus 25 years ago when we were just starting off." And I said, "I think you got nowhere to go but up."
Is a vibrant Phenix City riverfront with restaurants and shops and whitewater access a good thing or a bad thing for Columbus?
It's a good thing for Columbus. We've got to look at the renaissance we have with respect to this river. We've got to look at it from both sides of the river. I've got people over on the Columbus side looking at Phenix City and I've got people on the Phenix City side looking at Columbus. The plan needs to be how do we develop the entire Chattahoochee Valley of which the river in the middle is the anchor that springs forward the development.
It is absolutely good for Columbus. Are there always competing vices in that? Absolutely. I'll never forget one time I was talking to the Georgia Department of Economic Development guy and we were talking about bringing a plant down here and he had a particular need. And I said, "That won't work in Columbus, but I know Phenix City has got this plant right across the river." And he said, "I ain't interested in Phenix City. I'm interested in Georgia." He said, "I'm a Georgia economic developer." In my mind was, yeah, the jobs were the jobs, just a few miles away.
I saw an ad not long ago in a development magazine and it was for Phenix City's whitewater course.
Let me tell you something about that. That's great. The more people who claim ownership in whitewater, the better we like it. I was in a dentist office and I saw a whitewater sign. I was in an obstetrician's office and I saw a whitewater sign. If you look at ads in the Ledger, you'll see references to whitewater as it relates to cars, as it relates to all sorts of things, and as far as I'm concerned, I think it's great. I think the reason people are doing that is that the whitewater brand has all the good qualities of any brand: It's young, it's clean, it's fun, it's energetic, it's for kids, it's for old folks. It's got all the components and I think people are seeing that, and people are claiming ownership of it.
Have you done the Cut Bait rapid at high flow?
Yes, even though it wasn't quite as high. I actually went down Cut Bait at high flow before (the entire dam was taken out).
You haven't done Cut Bait in its current existence, though? No.
Are you going to?
Maybe. It just depends. I've been down five times and I've only been flipped twice, so I survived. I will tell you this though: Right after it opened, I had reason to invite some of my friends to come down, and I had 60 people -- I had 20 grandparents, I had 20 parents that were in their 30s, early 40s, and then I had 20 grandkids. And we went down that at low flow, and it was the most fun trip that we've ever done. Everybody had a ball from my 75-year-old friends all the way down to my 5-year-old grandson.
It was a great trip and it was a wonderful family day. We started at 9:30 in the morning and finished about 1:30 in the afternoon. The best way I can describe it is my 5-year-old grandson when we started out said, "Pop, this is the most boring thing I've ever done," and when we finished, he said, "Pop, that's the most exciting thing I've ever done."
Talk a little bit about what you're going to do with Phenix Plaza.
First of all, we're excited about being there and we're excited that we are going to have an outfitter that's going to be the anchor there -- Whitewater Express is there. We're going to build a new facility for them at some point in time.
How far off?
It's probably going to be next year, 2015. One of the problems that we've had is that there are a number of tenants over there who have got their leases still in play, and so I've got another 10 years on Family Dollar, City Trends and Rainbow.
There's only so much I can do with those facilities. But one of the first steps is we will re-clad the old part of the shopping center, make it look a little bit nicer, redo the parking lot. We may tear down the empty portion of it and rebuild some other buildings, and then try to work off of the new Third Avenue and having a couple more buildings right on the riverfront.
We've bought the property on the east side of Third Avenue, and that will allow us to put potentially a couple of restaurants right on the water. They'll actually be the closest restaurant per se to the river.
Did the city own part of the land?
Mike Osman. We haven't closed but we have it under contract.
When do you expect to close it?
Sometime in August.
We're talking about the property on the river between the pedestrian bride at 14th Street and the 13th Street Bridge?
Right.
So, that now becomes a two-restaurant tract?
Yes.
What are the possibilities? What kind of restaurants?
Clearly, the types of possibilities are things like we see downtown. Like the Loft Restaurant in a free-standing building or like a Houlihan's, but a free-standing building, or similar to some of the restaurants out in the suburbs that are free-standing. Obviously, very casual.
We don't need formal there because it's going to be the type of restaurant that you could go out, walk on the patio or walk on the deck down to the RiverWalk there on the Alabama side, and come back up and go into the restaurant or sit out on the patio. You have a very good view of the river up there because you're so close to it. That's the type of things we're looking at.
How much longer are you going to do this?
Well, I'm enjoying what I'm doing. I don't know what else I would do. It's exciting. It's fun being part of a company and a community that has a vision for the city. I enjoy just being the guy that sort of drives the wagon in a lot of ways, and I'm very blessed to have this opportunity. So, as long as I'm having fun and they'll keep having me around over here, I'll keep doing it.
How old are you now?
67.
So, no retirement plans?
Not in the immediate future. There's lots of things we want to do downtown. You know, Bill Turner is 92. I met with him this morning about some of the projects he's thinking about doing and I just can't give him enough credit for having a vision, having persistence, but also understanding that he can have a vision and he can have a project, but it has to be a project people want. And if the people don't want it, then he's not going to do it. He'll throw some ideas out, but if you don't have community acceptance, then regardless of having the financial resources to do it, he won't do it. And I think that's a great lesson for real estate developers and people in communities -- that you can have some good ideas and a vision of where you want to go, but if the general rank-and-file person doesn't believe in it, sincerely believe in it, then it's not a project the community needs to endeavor. Because the reverse is terrible. The reverse is "Yeah, that was done only because so and so wanted it done; they never ask my opinions."
For all the great things he has done, he has been a great listener from people as to what's good for the community.
Who replaces the Bill Turners, the Jimmy Blanchard and the Rozier Dedwylders? Who is the next group of leaders that will continue this?
I don't know if you'd ever find one person that would replace Bill Turner.
An interesting story there: Gail Browning does the test that tells what kind of personality you have. She tested Bill Turner and she said he was in the 99th percentile on visionary items; that she had not seen many people who have that kind of vision. And that's true.
I don't know if you'll ever replace a Bill Turner or a Jimmy Blanchard, or a (Aflac Chairman) Dan Amos, or a (retired Synovus Chairman) Jimmy Yancey, per se.
I think what happens is they have laid the seeds where there's a lot of younger folks in a lot of different capacities that will carry on the visions. It may not be one person, but it may be a group of people. And I'll give you a good example of that. This (Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce) Young Professional Group has come about and I think that's a terrific group. It's a group of young people who are very interested in our community, and they're going and they are doing things.
That's a group of people who will get some things done in Columbus that maybe in the past one or two people had sort of been in charge. I think it's more of a group effort.
How is Columbus today different from the Columbus you were raised in?
Well, going way back, one of the big -- I don't want to say criticisms -- but at least comments about Columbus was that we were a textile and military town only and there was some "families" in Columbus who didn't want to change that, that they basically wanted to keep it a textile and military town only for selfish reasons.
I don't personally believe that was the desire, but I do believe that we were a town that was very fragmented in the sense that we had an upper income crowd and we have a lower income crowd. We didn't have as much of a middle income class. And through the years that has changed.
I remember when we got Pratt-Whitney in here as an industry, that was a huge impetus because they brought in literally hundreds of people who fit that middle class kind of income stratum. I think we have changed over the years. I think we've gone obviously from (being) based on textile and military to a much more diverse economy.
Obviously the Aflacs and the TSYSes and the Synovuses of the world have helped in that regard. I think we're a lot more diversified. I think we're a lot more diverse socially, too.
I think it's very healthy the racial mix we have. I think it's very healthy we have a female mayor. It's healthy that we have an African-American city manager. I think we're much more diverse now than we were. And I think if we can use that diversity to our advantage, we can continue to grow.
Twenty-six years from now, what does Columbus and Phenix City look like?
I've made this statement a number of times: Maybe not 25 years from now, but 10 years from now, when someone says Columbus, Ga., they're going to say, "That's that neat town where they have that cool river running through with whitewater rapids, and I've heard all about it."
The reason I say that is that in the past when somebody would say Columbus, Ga., they would say, "You mean Columbus, Ohio?" "No, Columbus, Georgia." "Yeah, isn't that next to Fort Benning?" or "Isn't it that a small town south of Callaway Gardens?" or most of the time it would be blank. It would not register an image at all in what people would say.
When I say, "What do you think of when you think of Paris?" the Eiffel Tower comes up. "What do you think when you say St. Louis?" Maybe it's the Arch. What do you think when you say San Antonio? Maybe it's the Alamo or the RiverWalk. Twenty-five years from now when somebody says Columbus, Ga., the image that I hope will come across is "That's that neat, cool town that's got a river running right through it and it's a vibrant town, it's a fun, progressive town that has a very positive image." I think that's what you're going to see in the future.
I think people are going to have a very positive image about Columbus, and I think it's going to be much better than no image at all.
Mat Swift
Age: 67
Job: President, Real Estate Division, W.C. Bradley Co.
Education: Episcopal High School, Alexandria, Va., 1965; University of Georgia, B.A., economics, 1969; Mercer Law School, juris doctorate, 1972
Family: Wife, Mary Lou Swift; daughters Lindsay Swift Fluker, Lucile Swift Branch, Catherine Swift Addison; 9 grandchildren.
 
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