Hard times for Gwinnett's master of the deal

“I’ve made a lot of money and lost a lot of money, more in this recession than any other,” he said in a recent statement.

Has Wayne Mason lost his Midas touch?

“Up until recently, he’s been a very good businessman,” said Emmett Clower, a longtime friend and ex-mayor of Snellville. “But he just sort of shrugs it off. And with the economy the way it is ...”

Nary a developer in this country, let alone a high-dollar land broker like Mason, has survived the recession unscathed. Homes, shopping centers, warehouses, upscale communities — all Mason ventures at one time or another — have lost immense value and left their developers in deep financial trouble.

Most, like Mason, an ex-poker player, bet on the good times lasting. They didn’t. Lenders and buyers evaporated, a double liquidity whammy that few leveraged developers could withstand.

Mason, 69, declined an interview. In the statement, though, he said that “every sector of the real estate industry has taken a substantial hit.”

Friends and business partners, though, insist Mason will survive. He has been here before during previous recessions. He’d sell land, pay off debts, ride out the downturn and roar back to profitability and prominence.

“You’re going to lose a few and be sued and give up some property — most people don’t pitch no-hitters every day,” said Elliott Brack, a journalist who wrote a history of Gwinnett County. “But he’ll come back strong. When it comes to investing, he’s as good as they come.”

Mason’s legal and financial woes came to the fore in October when Wachovia Bank sued him for defaulting on a $7.5 million loan.

Mason and Lone Pine, one of his companies, borrowed the money in 2004 to buy three units in a Buckhead medical building, according to the lawsuit.

In November, a South Carolina bank sued Mason, John Williams, Ronald Leventhal and James Wallace Sr. — all major Atlanta developers — claiming they defaulted on $42.5 million in loans used to finance a posh residential community along the Georgia coast.

First Citizens Bank and Trust Co. said interest payments haven’t been made since May. Each developer is on the hook for as much as $9.5 million, according to the lawsuit. Ten real estate and investment companies, all affiliated with the four developers, shoulder the brunt of the loans.

Mason and the others pumped millions of dollars into Hampton Island Preserve, a 4,000-acre gated community below Savannah where home lots top out at $4 million.

The development includes a $9 million horse stable, Davis Love III-designed golf course, “treehouse spa” and access to a private seaplane.

Leventhal said in November only 40 of the 370 home sites had been sold and blamed “the impact of the economy.” (Neither Leventhal nor Cary Ichter, Mason’s attorney, returned calls for this story.)

In his statement, Mason said he wouldn’t discuss any lawsuits while hinting at other financial troubles.

“While they have chosen to file suit, a substantial number of others have not and are working with my partners and me to resolve any debt issues,” Mason wrote.

The loans to Mason and friends originated with Georgian Bank, which failed in September. Its remaining accounts and assets were acquired by First Citizens.

Mason was a major investor in Georgian and “lost a boatload of money,” according to Jane Langley, his spokeswoman.

“I don’t know anybody in real estate who is not taking shots from all directions. I’ve never seen it this bad,” said Emory Morsberger, a developer who has partnered with Mason on Gwinnett and Atlanta projects the past five years. “And I perceive that coastal [developments] are being hit even harder than urban and suburban ones.”

Hampton Island is a rare Mason investment, an upscale coastal development that highlights the former Gwinnett County Commission chairman’s shift from the tried-and-true residential and retail developments that made him a millionaire many times over.

An attempt to turn a 4.6-mile swath of Atlanta’s Beltline into a live-work-play community with high-rise condos, shops and parks was Mason’s most publicized departure from the development norm. Fierce neighborhood opposition, though, led Mason and his son Keith to quit the Beltline and sell their property for a nice profit.

“He realized he was limiting himself by only investing in Gwinnett years ago,” said Brack. “Now, in a money crunch, some of that diversification is coming back to haunt him.”

Mason has owned and built homes, apartments, condos, shopping centers and warehouses around metro Atlanta, Savannah, Athens and the Southeast. His real estate MO is to invest in land and, later, sell it to developers. Sometimes Mason will take a development stake, but most often he won’t.

In a 2005 interview, the fast-talking, white-haired real estate impresario said he claims 50 percent of the profits on most projects.

“I put up all the money, put up all the risk,” Mason said.

His business dealings were scrutinized when he served as a Gwinnett commissioner in the 1970s. County-approved roads, water and sewer lines passed near property owned by Mason, his family and friends. County and federal grand juries investigated, but charges were never filed.

“He’s an excellent businessman and a financial expert when it comes to the numbers of the deal,” said Richard Tucker, a business partner since 1972. “It’s like they say about a football player: He may not be in a class by himself, but it doesn’t take long to call the roll.”

Mason has said he lives for the deal and will die seeking his final one. As a boy, he plowed family gardens with a one-eyed mule and peddled eggs and Christmas wreaths. As a teen, he sold auto parts and tires, according to Brack, the Gwinnett chronicler.

As a young man, he opened a bonding company, ceramic tile store, funeral home, liquor store and a bank. He built 1,800 homes in Snellville between 1959 and 1972. By then, he was a millionaire.

Projects invested in and/or developed by Wayne Mason

Discover Mills: Mason assembled most of the 225-acre site in Lawrenceville that was developed by others as an outlet center.

The Villages at Global Forum: Mason and partners bought 70 acres off Buford Highway near I-285. He developed hundreds of apartments and townhouses and 100,000 square feet of commercial space.

Global Station: Mason bought a 42-acre site in Duluth with hopes of building an Atlantic Station-type mixed-use project. The $700 million project fell apart two years ago, though, when South Korean investors couldn’t line up financing.

Braselton: Mason bought 1,700 acres in Braselton from actress Kim Basinger.

Presidential MarketCenter: Mason and a partner bought 224 acres at what became the intersection of Ronald Reagan Parkway and Ga. 124.

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