BLUE MOUNTAIN BEACH, Fla. – Nothing but 500 miles of highway link this sparkling, white sand beach on Florida’s Emerald Coast – paradise for those who can afford it – to a forlorn section of weathered buildings and vacant lots on the eastern edge of Downtown Memphis.
More in this special series:
Part 1: Unlikely partners
Part 2 Extra: The fine print
Part 2 Extra: Where’s the scrutiny?
Yet, these two disparate spots evidence J. Kevin Adams’ complicated narrative in commercial real estate, one that spans three decades.
In Memphis, where the broker-developer is one of the most respected names in commercial real estate, Adams could cement his legacy in a giant way. Backed by wealthy out-of-state funders, he hopes to transform that blighted area of Downtown with a $950 million renaissance – a massive retail, office and residential undertaking called Union Row that’s receiving a similarly massive public subsidy: up to $150 million in incentives from local government.
But it’s here, tucked away along this distant stretch of Florida Panhandle coastline where Adams’ less lustrous side quietly emerged a decade ago in a series of devastating business setbacks.
Caught in the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression, bank loans fell into default at three separate Emerald Coast development sites he and partners launched. Trouble gripped other sites in Arkansas and Idaho, where Adams and his team were forced to halt a cash-starved, 400-unit residential development in mid-stream – partially finished houses left standing for a time as monuments to the crash.
But none of his setbacks hit harder, or more painfully, than the $18 million foreclosure in 2010 of the exclusive Redfish Village condominium resort here at Blue Mountain Beach.
“I’ve been to hell and back,’’ says Adams, 58. “It was very, very hurtful. Financially and emotionally.’’
Hell and back may be a stretch. But it’s understandable.
An examination by the Institute for Public Service Reporting at The University of Memphis identified 32 lawsuits against Adams, his companies or partnerships from Florida to the Rocky Mountains — struggles that start with the nationwide crash of the real estate market and continued even as the business plan for Union Row began taking shape.
“I actually look at it as a strength,’’ said Atlanta businessman David Dlugolenski, a key partner with Adams in Union Row and his bridge to the millions of dollars of private financing from wealthy investors that will be coupled with local government incentives.
“You learn a lot about yourself when you’re in those situations. You learn a lot about your partner set. But it also makes you better,’’ Dlugolenski said.
“And you learn what not to do as you come out of it. So, I think it was probably a good educational experience for him … . I think what he learned about himself, I think just how he handled himself, at least what we learned, was all very good.’’
He said this knowing the depth of Adams’ battles, some only recently resolved.
The IRS filed a $742,000 tax lien against Adams for unpaid taxes in 2015. A publicly traded firm he ran that manufactured office lighting equipment failed the same year. In 2017, Adams and a former business partner — a friend — accused each other of fraud in dueling lawsuits.
Adams survived. He never sought bankruptcy protection. He paid off his tax debt. He reconciled with creditors. He fought one bank for a decade as it tried to collect on a loan guarantee he’d signed. And though he eventually settled with his former partner, theirs is an uneasy peace finally resolved in court this spring after Adams secured massive public incentives for Union Row.
Path to Union Row
“There aren’t too many people that have done things this big,’’ Adams said of Union Row, thought to be the largest “mixed use’’ real estate project in Memphis history.
“So, yes, I’m not afraid of challenges. And I’ve had some great successes. But I’ve had some great failures, too, you know …
“(But) I can look at all these people in the eye, these bankers and so forth and attorneys and they will all tell you — they’ve all said to me personally that, you know, that I did the right thing. And that’s why I’m here today.’’
He is on this day simultaneously humble and brimming with confidence; the same guy who, in March 2011, escaped to the great outdoors months after the recession’s darkest days.
He unpacked his tent and his 14-foot kayak and began paddling down the Mississippi River — an arduous, 16-day solo journey from Memphis to New Orleans.
“I talked to myself out loud a lot,’’ he later told Memphis magazine. “I am a spiritual guy so I had conversations with God. I would sing my songs and think about my family and not stop until dark unless there was a lightning storm.’’
The article told much about Adams and his journey but was silent on his financial struggles. But in an interview with the Institute, Adams said distress over Redfish Village and other business setbacks drove him onto that kayak.
“I needed some time to myself and with my Father above just to sort it out. And it’s the best thing I ever did. It saved me.’’
Adams first learned about life’s hard knocks on the football fields of his native Texas.
He grew up in Houston, where he played fullback on Stratford High’s 1978 state championship team and later switched to linebacker for Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He played with the best — future NFL running backs Eric Dickerson and Craig James — and earned varsity letters as a freshman, sophomore and junior while helping the Mustangs win a Southwest Conference championship and contend for a national title. He missed his senior season with a neck injury.
”I’ve been to hell and back. It was very, very hurtful. Financially and emotionally.’’Kevin Adams
(SMU football later was tarnished with the NCAA’s only modern-era “death penalty” — its 1987 season canceled for a series of major rule violations involving developments after Adams played his last game.)
“You’re going to have a lot more adversity than victories,’’ Adams posits, saying he learned to lean on teammates to get through tough times. “Teamwork’s the main thing.’’
By 1985, his team was The Murphree Company. He’d graduated two years earlier with degrees in finance and real estate and was a rising 24-year-old executive when the Houston-based development firm brought him to Memphis to help build and open Downtown’s 21-story, polished granite Morgan Keegan Tower (later renamed the Raymond James Tower). Adams was the building’s leasing and marketing agent. It was a good job, but it nearly ended as quickly as it started.
An opportunity opens
Murphree pulled out of Memphis during a downturn in the commercial real estate market. Sensing an opportunity, Adams and fellow Texan Earl Blankenship formed a company to fill the void. Operating as Interstate Realty Corp., they convinced the building’s New York-based equity partner to let them take over management and leasing.
Soon, IRC found other opportunities.
It began managing other office towers, including One Memphis Place, the distinctive, tinted-glass structure at Jefferson Avenue and B.B. King Boulevard known to many today as the Darth Vader building for its dark, helmet-like appearance. But back in 1987, it was more commonly called “One Empty Place’’ for its overwhelming vacancies. IRC went to work. It finished the building’s uncompleted lobby and parking garage, then recruited an array of tenants, including the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
By 1992 the 15-story building was nearly fully leased.
By then, IRC had built a regional footprint. Operating in three states, the firm managed the First Tennessee Bank Building downtown and the First American Center in Nashville, among others.
“One thing that Earl and I recognized very early is that Memphis did not have brokerage or property management third-party companies, which we were used to in Texas,’’ Adams said. “So, we decided that probably a good source for us was to go after property management and leasing and finishing out office buildings.”
They were so successful they formed a partnership with CB Richard Ellis, an international commercial real estate brokerage, management and consulting firm. Adams became the CEO of CBRE’s local affiliate. Starting with just a handful of employees, he had more than 100 by 2011 and was managing millions of square feet of space.
“You see the sign of CBRE on many properties all over the city,’’ said real estate mogul Jack Belz, who hired Adams early on to manage his many commercial properties in Memphis and stuck with him through the years. “And one of the best indications of a company is repeat business that their clients allow them to do. And so that’s the best’’ recommendation, he said.
In his recent application to the Downtown Memphis Commission for up to $100 million in Tax Increment Financing for Union Row, Adams lists Belz as a reference along with other major players in Memphis business, including insurance executive Johnny Pitts, bankers Kirk Bailey (Pinnacle Financial Partners) and Phillip May (former Memphis president of Renasant Bank) and Will Deupree III, managing director at Raymond James financial advisers.
Adams also lists Henry Turley, one of the city’s best known real estate developers.
“He’s got a lot of hustle and desire,’’ said Turley, delighting in the “splash’’ Adams is making with Union Row. Still, Turley said he knew Adams as “more of a broker and a leasing person’’ than a developer.
Asked in his application to list his development experience, Adams typed a paragraph that briefly mentions his involvement opening the Raymond James Tower and The Memphis Professional Building, a medical office complex also built by The Murphree Company in the 1980s.
His application also mentions his completion of One Memphis Place and his past ownership of three Downtown office complexes.
“Kevin has developed in Tennessee, Florida and Idaho in the past,’’ he wrote without naming projects in the other two states.
In the same paragraph, however, he named brokerage companies he was involved with in each of the three states.
Over the years, Adams’ cachet as an authority in commercial real estate brokerage, management and consulting made him an oft-quoted figure in business news reports.
It also made him wealthy.
Adams commanded a $1.3 million annual salary as CEO at CBRE. According to a personal financial statement he later filed in connection with one of the various lawsuits he or his companies would face following the crash of the real estate market, he claimed a $6.9 million net worth in 2008.
Teaming with wealthy partners, Adams sniffed out investment opportunities from the Florida Gulf Coast to the Rocky Mountains, sinking his growing fortune into dozens of ventures.
There were restaurants. Adams guaranteed loans on two Rinaldo Grisanti & Sons Italian eateries. There was artwork, too. Adams and a partner once sank $1.4 million into a painting by the 19th-century impressionist, Mary Cassatt.
But more than anything, there was real estate.
Literally, lots and lots of real estate.
A 6,000-acre ranch in Idaho. Forty acres of improved land in Mountain View, Arkansas. An assortment of residential developments in the Florida Panhandle. Adams listed three dozen such investments in 2008. He and his partners invested millions to develop projects across the country ranging from a $642,000 house along the picturesque Teton River in Victor, Idaho, to some Florida beach houses and a $45 million development with plans to build 421 houses in Idaho’s Sun Valley.
“There really weren’t deals in Memphis, Tennessee. You had to go elsewhere,’’ Adams said, explaining his strategy to capitalize on booming markets. “The Florida market, the panhandle, as an example was really hot. The West was very hot.’’
Though Adams and his team entered many ventures as private equity investors who partnered with local developers, at times he played the role of developer to varying degrees.
His main two partners in these forays were an old friend, former Arkansas banker and rural land broker William B. Benton Jr., and Edward A. Labry III, a multimillionaire who amassed a fortune collecting transaction fees charged when consumers swipe their credit or debit cards.
The trio partnered in a firm called 474 Club LLC. Formed in 2004, it served as the primary vehicle in these deals.
Adams and Benton explained the origins of their partnership in a newspaper article in 2007, saying they’d wandered into each other years earlier while vacationing in Florida.
“That’s divine intervention,’’ Benton told The Commercial Appeal in the 2007 interview.
Labry (pronounced la-BREE) concurred.
“I trust these two guys with my life,’’ he said in the article.
But even then, the booming real estate market showed signs of hollowing out. Prices were cascading downward along Florida’s Emerald Coast and other places where Adams and his partners were in business.
Soon, the bottom would fall out beneath them. Before it was over, the members of this “divine” partnership would be suing each other.
Lure of profit
The turquoise water and white sand of Blue Mountain Beach have made it a prime tourist attraction for years. Adams and his partners saw money in the then-booming real estate market in coastal Walton County, some 20 miles east of Destin, Florida, along scenic Highway 30A, a route familiar to many vacationing Memphians.
His prime accomplishment, the Redfish Village condominium resort, still stands.
On a recent spring day the scene here is nothing less than subtropical bliss: People on beach bicycles lazily pedal by as shoppers stroll the palm- and Magnolia-lined property, visiting the Santa Rosa Pharmacy or the Aesthetic Clinique for a facial or maybe even some plastic surgery to “enhance your natural beauty,’’ or catching a bite to eat at Redfish Taco.
Redfish Village covers eight acres – a tony commercial strip, a large, contoured pool, a private dock on Big Redfish Lake and 80 luxury condominium units. A block south, beachfront homes can sell for $3 million to $4 million or more. And nearby landlocked homes of about 2,500 square feet can cost $800,000.
Back in 2005 ,when construction began and the market was soaring, management was signing sales contracts between $829,000 and $1.2 million per condominium. But suddenly prices collapsed. Even now, after years of recovery, condos go for a fraction of that. In early April, for example, three were for sale at prices ranging from $399,500 to $445,000.
Few could have imagined such a catastrophic collapse back in May 2004, however, when Adams, Benton and Labry formed 474 Club and turned their sights to the still-booming Emerald Coast.
The trio soon teamed with another firm, a group of Gulf Coast businessmen called Mosaic Capital Partners II. They worked together through a third company chartered that year in Georgia called Redfish Village LLC. By August 2005, in the waning months of the boom, Redfish Village acquired eight acres of vacant land, borrowed $51.7 million from Regions Bank and notified Walton County that construction was under way.
In the beginning at least, Mosaic Capital (it later changed its name to the New Orchard Group) took the lead in developing the condominium complex. Adams and his two Memphis partners in 474 Club acted more as an equity partner, advancing essential upfront capital, a critical role that earned 474 Club a 30 percent ownership interest.
But even then, Adams had a hand in the development.
“He had a lot of real estate knowledge,’’ recalled Brad Zeitlin, a principal in now-defunct Mosaic Capital. “I remember Kevin as that kind of a person, super helpful.’’
Adams put it this way while testifying in a 2011 court deposition in answer to one of several lawsuits he would face:
“So, we were a silent investor,’’ he said of 474 Club’s role, “but because of our knowledge, our deep knowledge of real estate, we were able to ask the right questions and to promote certain ways of, ‘Have you looked at going this direction with the marketing or with the construction,’ introducing them to relationships that may be in the architect, banks, or what have you, from our side.’’
Indeed, Adams said he recruited Memphis-based Looney Ricks Kiss architects and Montgomery Martin construction to design and build Redfish. Both firms also are working on Union Row.
But before Redfish could open it was already in distress.
The great crash hit early in the Florida panhandle. Its economy softened by a series of storms, including Hurricane Dennis in 2005, real estate sales slowed. By 2007, prices were in free fall.
People began to panic.
That May, some 20 individuals and investment groups who’d signed expensive contracts to purchase condominiums at Redfish Village sued. Buyers had put down as much as $200,000 in earnest money. Seeing their investments collapse, they alleged a variety of false claims and marketing schemes as they pursued an escape hatch.
Adams and his Memphis partners decided it was time to take the wheel.
In September 2007, he and Benton formed yet another company, Redfish Village Investors LLC. When mediation efforts failed to resolve a lawsuit filed by mutinous condominium purchasers, the Memphis partners knew it was time to move. As 474 Club LLC, Adams, Benton and Labry bought out all of Mosaic’s interest in Redfish Village.
Then, they refinanced.
As Redfish Village Investors LLC, Adams and his two Memphis partners took a $28 million loan in December 2007 from Hillcrest Bank of Kansas, acquiring the many unsold condominiums. Adams, Benton and Labry each guaranteed the loan, records indicate.
“We had to get more engaged in what was going on because we saw the direction of the market and people pulling out of contracts for sale and so forth that we needed to take a more active role,’’ Adams later testified. “…I was traveling on a regular basis down to that market to see firsthand and be in those meetings and see what was going on.’’
Two months after the refinancing, things seemed to be looking up – 15 of the 80 units at Redfish Village already were occupied, his team reported.
“We know it will come back strong,’’ Adams told the Northwest Florida Daily News in February 2008. “We’re invested in this thing – it would be really tough to duplicate this.’’
But in spring 2010, the Gulf Coast’s tourism-based economy took another hit when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig infamously exploded and sank, spewing millions of gallons oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
“Down there, the world stopped,’’ Zeitlin said.
“It was a bloodbath,’’ said Daniel Uhlfelder, one of several attorneys who would sue Adams or his companies following the crash.
Hillcrest Bank sued in March 2010, claiming Redfish Village Investors had defaulted, owing $18.3 million plus interest accruing over the previous five months. The bank successfully foreclosed and took possession of 76 of the 80 condominium units by year’s end.
By then, the infamous bursting of the housing bubble was a full-blown national crisis.
“A lot of projects went bad… It didn’t mean the developer was bad in every case. It just meant that the market dried up,’’ said Toby Rittner, president of the Council of Development Finance Agencies. The Columbus, Ohio-based nonprofit promotes the interests of public, private and nonprofit development agencies and endorses a set of best practices.
The personal history of any developer seeking incentives needs to be evaluated on its own merits; once past troubles are known it’s often best to discuss those details to ensure public confidence, he said.
“I don’t think it should be hidden,’’ Rittner said.
More banks sue
For Adams, the litigation was only starting.
Banks moved against two other Gulf Coast development sites as an avalanche of lawsuits fell on Adams and his partners from Florida to Tennessee, Arkansas and Idaho. Labry later claimed in a court filing that “many’’ of 474 Club’s loans “went into default.’’
In Hailey, Idaho, the recession stopped one of the partners’ building projects in its tracks. Doing business as the Sweetwater Company, the men had launched a residential development involving 421 homes, a short drive from the famous Sun Valley ski resort.
Dozens of townhomes went up, each blazoned in bright shades of burnt orange, blue and green and equipped with heated garages and ski storage lockers. It was a place of breathtaking beauty — cozy courtyards with inspiring views of nearby mountain lines.
Then, suddenly in 2008, construction halted. Forty-nine homes had been built and another 22 were partially completed.
”A lot of projects went bad… It didn’t mean the developer was bad in every case. It just meant that the market dried up.’’Toby Rittner, president of the Council of Development Finance Agencies
“Neither we nor the banks who provided construction and acquisition financing could have predicted the depth and duration of the recession,’’ Sweetwater CEO Adams said in a September 2009 letter to City of Hailey officials as he attempted to revive the project. “We could have thrown in the towel, but instead we have worked tirelessly to create a plan for a successful re-launching of the project.’’
Adams eventually paid the city $330,000 for a traffic light and landscaping, a move that enabled him to file a plat — a legal step required to begin selling homes. The local news media covered the development in May 2010 when Sweetwater finally got its first homebuyer.
“The crash stalled a number of projects in our valley,’’ said Hailey community development director Lisa Horowitz. Other developments were abandoned. “There were things that were much worse. Sweetwater held up all their commitments to the city.’’
The development eventually was sold and has begun to revive in recent years.
Court records show by 2008 Adams signed at least 37 loan guarantees pledging repayment of $129 million, including two loans totaling $45 million for the Sweetwater development.
It left him exposed when the crash hit.
“That’s what got me,” Adams said.
But a fortuitous plan offered Adams an exit ramp.
Under a complex December 2009 arrangement, partner Ed Labry paid off 10 troubled loans totaling $75 million. Eight of those loans — with a balance totaling $72 million — involved real estate deals in which Labry and Adams personally guaranteed repayment, according to court records and an interview with Labry. They included two loans for the Sweetwater development with balances totaling nearly $40 million.
In addition to those eight loans, Labry said he paid off a deficit owed to Hillcrest Bank following the foreclosure at Redfish Village, eliminating those guarantees as well.
Labry paid off the loans using a $45.6-million line of credit from First Tennessee Bank. In essence, he purged debt by refinancing with First Tennessee. Records connected to the businessman’s 2011 divorce indicate banks accepted as little as $35 million from him to cancel the $72 million debt. The Institute couldn’t independently confirm a payoff amount. However, Labry said in an interview that in the aftermath of the crash when numbers of debtors filed bankruptcy and repaid little or nothing, banks often were willing to settle for less than the full amount of the loan.
“If you had capital and the ability to pay in part, then the banks were willing to negotiate with you,’’ said Labry, who’d amassed a $48-million net worth by 2008 as a top executive at electronic fund transfer firms Concord EFS Inc. and First Data Corp. He made good on his debts, he said, to survive the crash with his good name intact.
His loan “workouts’’ had the collateral effect, too, of absolving Adams of his personal guarantees. Formalizing the deal, the two men signed an agreement that not only required Adams to convey property that helped retire the loans but also ensured Labry wouldn’t sue his partner.
Court records show Adams valued the property at $350,000, though he said in an interview the conveyed property was worth as much as “a few million’’ dollars.
Labry’s refinancing didn’t cover all of his partner’s guarantees. Adams said he settled some on his own. Others were tied up in litigation for years. But Adams conceded Labry saved him.
“He had the pot of gold,’’ Adams said.
“Not saying (banks) didn’t come after me, too. But he had a lot – a lot – more net worth than me or Bill Benton.”
Benton declined to comment.
In a follow-up interview, Adams recast the settlement, saying he saved Labry just as much as his partner had saved him. “I got the right (legal) team members involved. Ed didn’t know who to get involved.” The lawyers “saved Ed’s ass and mine,” Adams said.
Asked why he would accept such a slim contribution from Adams, Labry said his top priority was to preserve his own reputation.
The two men remained close even as Labry took full control of 474 Club, jettisoning Adams and Benton.
“Mr. Adams was the original person that contacted me to invest in certain real estate matters. And (he’s) just … a good man to have,’’ Labry testified in a 2011 deposition hearing. Citing Adams’s “integrity or word of honor,’’ Labry said Adams gave advice “to help me navigate through these issues.’’
Partners turn on each other
Yet, four years later the men would be at odds.
Labry filed two suits against Adams, both in July 2015 in Shelby County Chancery Court. One, filed on behalf of RAL Investors, contended Adams refused to honor guarantees he’d signed to repay two bank loans not included in the December 2009 workout plan. Those debts totaled $2 million in principal and interest by 2017, according to court records. The debts originally belonged to 474 Club – money it borrowed pursuing developments in the western U.S. But Labry personally purchased those debts from banks. Now, as lender, he moved to collect from Adams.
In a companion suit, Labry, suing on behalf of 474 Club, contended Adams owed hundreds of thousands more for a line of credit enjoyed as a one-time partner in that business. According to the suit, 474 Club loaned Adams $969,000 over a period of years “for his personal use,’’ but when the company made a formal demand to Adams to pay off the $445,409 balance, he refused.
“I’m not afraid of challenges. And I’ve had some great successes. But I’ve had some great failures, too, you know… . (But) I can look at all these people in the eye, these bankers and so forth and attorneys and they will all tell you – they’ve all said to me personally that, you know, that I did the right thing. And that’s why I’m here today..’’Kevin Adams
Adams answered both suits with counterclaims. He contended 474 Club actually owed him nearly $2 million. Adams also contended he’d been “universally released’’ of any debt owed by 474 Club in consideration of the property he’d conveyed under the transfer agreement, arguing Labry’s documents “conveniently’’ omitted information.
As an example of just how contentious it got, Labry amended one of his suits in 2017 to allege Adams fraudulently transferred his Memphis home into his wife’s name to escape paying his debt. Adams, in turn, accused his former partner of “promissory fraud.’’ In an interview, Labry said he took that action as a last resort and had called his friend ahead of time to alert him; Adams called the maneuver “pretty crappy.’’
The pair finally settled in court in April with consent orders dismissing both cases. Adams said he paid Labry a sum of money to dismiss the suits, though neither man would disclose how much. Adams said in a follow-up email that confidentiality agreements bar him from discussing “documents that are not public.’’
Adams says the experience – working through all the trouble that started with the crash – caused him to grow.
“I’ve learned some great life lessons and business lessons. I’m a lot more cautious in who I deal with and the things I get involved with. You know, I’m 58. And have two grandchildren. I want to enjoy my life. But I also want to be someone that’s remembered that stood up, you know, and didn’t run. So I’m just very cautious now.”
This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.