Hobbies: Sailing, gardening, hunting and fishing
Savannah – The temperature was nearing triple digits with a stifling August breeze, but Ben Carter walked Broughton Street with the energy of a schoolboy while painting his vision for remaking these historic commercial storefronts.
Carter, 60, the co-developer of the Mall of Georgia and visionary behind the ambitious Streets of Buckhead project before it crashed during the Great Recession, is in the middle of a career comeback.
He says sculptures and artwork will line Broughton like Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. New York restaurateurs will open cafes, and upscale retailers will fill the ground floors of shops whose façades Carter is spending a fortune to restore.
“It’s the variety that’s so attractive,” said Carter, pointing to the row of three-story buildings, some brick, others stone. “You could never afford to do these buildings from scratch.”
The financial tsunami wrecked other Atlanta real estate titans’ landmark projects too, but Carter’s Streets of Buckhead was arguably the most visible. Motionless cranes hovered over a fenced-in eight-acre hole in city’s wealthiest neighborhood for years. (The revived development, now called Buckhead Atlanta, is being finished by another developer and opens Thursday.)
But Carter has rebounded. The Atlanta native has taken over about 40 historic buildings in the heart of this river city where tradition is a way of life. Unlike the former rowdy bar scene Carter bought and leveled for Streets of Buckhead, he plans to bring preservation and renewal to historic Broughton in a $100 million makeover. That’s not all.
Outside Savannah, Carter has partnered with Tanger to build a $200 million luxury outlet mall near the junction of I-16 and I-95. He recently sold his 50 percent stake in St. John's Town Center, the posh Florida retail complex he built near Jacksonville, for nearly $400 million.
He’s not the same developer today. His company is leaner — about six employees rather than the 60 he had at the economy’s peak. Carter is leaner too, dropping about 30 pounds by walking Savannah and dancing.
“Ben’s a visionary and he’s a survivor. He’s got stamina,” said Robin Loudermilk, the former president of rent-to-own retailer Aaron’s, who has known Carter for decades and was once related to him by marriage.
Carter has developed about $3 billion worth of projects in different states, including the enormous Mall of Georgia.
His latest mission is to pack Broughton Street with luxury retailers and restaurants, recurring festivals and fun that he hopes will help raise Savannah’s profile to one of the top tourism destinations in the world.
Had the economy not washed out, the pinnacle of his career might have been in the neighborhood he grew up in: Buckhead.
The Lovett School grad used to ride the bus as a kid from Brookwood Hills to the Buckhead Triangle to shop, eat burgers and pal around. It became his target for for redevelopment years later as Buckhead Village became Atlanta’s notorious club scene. Dozens of bars and clubs lined both sides of Peachtree Road. Nights became a boisteroius mix of booze, petty crimes, noise and violence.
“My children did the parties, and every night my wife and I would just hope they came home,” Carter said.
The city eventually cracked down on the clubs and effectively killed the party scene.
In stepped Carter, son of the famed late developer Frank Carter, who built office towers in Midtown and the malls at Northlake, Southlake and Cumberland.
He rolled up 37 properties starting in 2006. Previous stories in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show he paid between $170 million and $210 million for eight acres — astronomic prices well above Atlanta’s overheated peak values.
Carter's vision for Streets of Buckhead was touted as Atlanta's Rodeo Drive, though Carter says he didn't coin the phrase. He lined up commitments for exclusive hotels such as a Baccarat, boutique brands such as jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels and planned exclusive high-rise residences.
Sam Massell, a former Atlanta mayor and president of the Buckhead Coalition, said Carter’s vision “…would have been extremely difficult to achieve even in the best economic times,” and that he ultimately overpaid for the land.
But, “Those of us who didn’t have money in it (were) ecstatic,” Massell said. “The economy just did it in.”
When banks stopped lending in 2007 and 2008, Carter scaled back his vision and scrambled to keep the high-class retailers engaged. Carter said he met with 117 banks and investor groups across the nation over 18 months to try to obtain fresh construction financing.
“I was never home,” he said.
Eventually, OliverMcMillan, the California development firm stepped in, though there are some differences in recollection over the new team’s entrance.
Carter said he brought in OliverMcMillan CEO Dene Oliver in hopes of making the San Diego firm his partner, but was later asked to step aside. Others familiar with the deal said one of Carter's partners, CBRE Investors, brought in the West Coast team.
In any event, by the end of 2010, Carter relinquished control of the stalled project that seemed to sum up what the recession had done to Atlanta. He said he retains a minority interest in the development and was paid “a couple million dollars” to move on.
“That’s life,” Carter said. “My hope was that it would be finished and I’m delighted Dene and his team have finished it. It’s substantially what we originally planned.”
Loudermilk said Buckhead owes Carter a debt of thanks.
“That land wasn’t developable until someone like Ben came in to assemble it,” Loudermilk said.
Oliver has praised Carter for his “pioneering” vision.
‘I kept going’
In 2012, Carter announced a plan to build an outlet mall that would bring top-name retailers to the main traffic artery linking New England and Florida. But at dinner in downtown Savannah one night with retail executives, he saw potential to rejuvenate Broughton Street.
It had a smattering of boarded up shops mixed with national retail heavyweights such as Gap, Banana Republic and Kate Spade. The Savannah College of Art and Design was investing millions of dollars nearby, and Savannah’s downtown had undergone years of renewal.
Carter devised a plan to buy up buildings, as he did in Buckhead, and now owns or controls about 70 percent of the Broughton storefronts.
“I started acquiring (buildings) and I kept getting encouragement from my retailer friends,” he said. “They said, ‘Keep going.’ So I kept going.”
As fortune would have it, the financiers and retailers he met in planning Streets of Buckhead and trying to keep the project alive, are calling on him to do deals.
“In the end it’s your reputation and the (Buckhead) project helped me meet and uncover new friends that I still work with,” Carter said.
He moved to Savannah in March to dedicate himself to Broughton Street and the outlet mall, and has become a common sight, walking his dog in the city’s squares. He splits his time between an apartment overlooking the historic district, his yacht and travelling to sell Broughton Street to the world’s luxury intelligentsia.
The Broughton Street restoration — branding is still in the works — will hold a grand opening likely in March, but new stores are already popping up, including J. Crew. Apartments, restaurants and hotels will come later.
Carter has locked horns with some locals. The number of international and national brands make critics fearful Carter will crowd out home-grown stores, diluting Savannah’s charm.
Though many local leaders praise Carter, some shopkeepers have complained to the Savannah Morning News that Carter jacked up rents and strong-armed local merchants.
“Is Ben Carter going to continue to ask for forgiveness rather than permission?” an anonymous post read on the website for Do Savannah.
Carter shrugs it off.
“They think because what happened in Buckhead, that I’m going to huff and puff and try to tear everything down,” Carter said. “It’s so 180 degrees from there. I’m spending millions to restore old buildings because I love them.”
Asked about returning to Atlanta, Carter didn’t rule it out, but insisted his full attention will be in Savannah for the next year to 18 months. But Carter is clearly paying attention to his hometown.
“One of the things that’s starting to get my attention, there are a lot of places like Duluth, Lawrenceville and Alpharetta that … are now looking for an urban core,” Carter said. “And I think that could be a tremendous opportunity.”