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They brought Trump to Tampa

Trying to figure out how to spur interest in their project, one brainstormed: What if we called it Trump Tower?

Published February 17, 2005

Before they landed Donald Trump as their partner in developing the tallest high-rise in the Tampa Bay area, the five principals of SimDag/RoBEL LLC had been dabbling in local real estate and accumulating wealth in relative obscurity.

Jody Simon and Frank Dagostino made a windfall from the sale of a medical education company seven years ago, then parlayed it into even greater riches through development of gulffront condos. Robert E. Lyons, who once had a company called Cookie Cutter Properties, became their exclusive builder and partner about a year ago.

Dr. Howard L. Howell, an orthodontist with three offices in the Tampa Bay area, has been developing commercial properties with Clearwater entrepreneur and commercial real estate agent Patrick J. Sheppard for 15 years. Together the pair has completed nearly 30 properties between Tampa and Orlando and one in Destin.

A few years ago, the five men joined to propose a mixed-use project on Clearwater Beach. That deal fell apart when land values skyrocketed, but the men kept in touch and by 2003 they were working on another idea.

Howell and Sheppard had found a promising parcel along the Hillsborough River in the heart of downtown Tampa. Dagostino, Simon and Lyons, partners in SimDag LLC, were intrigued.

Jointly as SimDag/RoBEL (formed from a compilation of family names), the five men purchased the existin g six-floor office building and parking lot a t 102 W Whiting St. Next they added the vacant lot at S Ashley Drive and W Brorein Street. Total purchase price of the properties: $16-million.

The men decided to renovate the office building and then considered several options for the empty space next door: offices, hotel, retail. Despite the modest height of their previous endeavors, none of which topped 10 stories, they decided the location called for something big. Their proposal: a 52-story luxury condo project on 1.5 acres.

Once they had the concept and a working model, the partners began tossing around ideas to give their project some pizazz and distinguish it from other residential towers being planned around Tampa's urban core. At one weekly meeting, Dagostino, at 34 the youngest of the group, brashly suggested, "What if we call it Trump Tower?"

The partners laughed, left and returned a week later convinced it wasn't such a dumb idea after all. Through some of Dagostino's real estate contacts in New Jersey, they sent out feelers to the Trump organization.

Initial response from Trump's representatives was encouraging. Trump, who had visited Tampa with George Steinbrenner in the past, liked the market and the idea of putting his name on the tallest building on the city's skyline.

The project's architectural design, by Tampa's Alcides Santiesteban, was on par with Trump's other properties.

"We had exceeded even Trump's standards in some areas," boasted Howell of the New York developer's initial response. "That went a long way to getting his attention."

Last summer, after SimDag/RoBEL's partners made their first trip to Trump's headquarters - riding up in the elevator with the winner of the first Apprentice series - they came away fairly confident a deal could be done.

"Then it was just a matter of the deal making its way through the details," said Simon, managing partner of SimDag LLC.

For the next several months, there was nearly daily phone contact between the local developers and Trump's senior counsel and property management team. Trump representatives flew down on several occasions to walk the site and meet with the project's architect, contractors and marketers.

Once they came to terms on an agreement, Trump's people didn't hesitate to tweak SimDag/RoBEL's initial plans: adjusting the traffic flow through the lobby, approving high-end finishes and fixtures, helping to design everything from elevator entrances to the wine cellar to the guest suites.

Among the amenities added for residents with professional-grade kitchens but no time or interest in cooking: computer touch screens in each condo that allow owners to reach the building's concierge and valet, as well as order room service from the restaurant on the ground level.

Simon, who, with Dagostino and Lyons, 47, has completed 129 waterfront condos, said Trump's team did not flinch at the local development group's lack of experience with high-rise construction.

"It's not like we're going to be doing this by ourselves," Simon said, adding that experienced contractors, engineers and builders have joined the development team.

Nor did the New Yorkers doubt that the Tampa market could absorb high-end urban condos at record-setting price levels of up to $6-million.

"You're talking about people who pushed the limits far beyond where we would have pushed them," Simon said of the Trump group.

Despite the heavy involvement of Trump's executives in hammering out details of the project, SimDag/RoBEL's partners did not meet the man himself until they signed their agreement in New York City on Jan.10.

Their second meeting is planned for Friday, when Trump will come to Tampa to open the project's sales office.

The local partners refuse to go into detail about their arrangement with Trump.

"We all have a financial obligation and we all receive financial remuneration," Howell said. "He is an active and participating partner."

Responding to reports that Trump is simply receiving a payment for the use of his name on the project, Dagostino, whose throw-away suggestion became a reality, said, "It probably would be a lot easier if w e were only using his name."

The partners in SimDag/RoBEL, hardly a household name locally, credit Trump with bringing their project unparalleled publicity when it is still nothing more than an architect's model.

"It has far exceeded our expectations," Simon said of the 190-unit project, which is nearly 100 percent reserved. Nor is he worried that buyers will get cold feet when they're forced to put down a nonrefundable, 20 percent deposit.

"If buyers fall out, they're going to lose, because we're immediately going to raise the prices," Simon said. "We've got so many buyers on backup, it won't be a problem."

Despite the magnitude of the Trump project, which is slated to break ground in the spring and be completed in three years, the partners all remain busy on other projects. Howell, 57, continues to see patients four days a week, and he and Sheppard, 58, have 29 units of townhomes under construction on Clearwater Beach, with additional condo projects planned in Tarpon Springs and north Clearwater.

The three partners in SimDag have three condo projects under construction on waterfront in Pinellas County, with an additional seven planned for groundbreaking this year. They also are involved in an apartment conversion project in Maryland and two condo developments on the New Jersey shore, where they own a construction and two real estate companies.

Simon, who is a licensed pharmacist, and Dagostino, whose background is in sales, also own a medical communications business, a marketing company, a biotech startup and a clinical research network.

"We don't just develop buildings, we develop companies," Dagostino said. "We invest in companies and help them grow."

Simon, 48, appears to be a master at juggling vastly diverse interests. The son of "The Great Malenko," professional wrestling's pre-eminent bad boy in the 1960s and '70s, Simon himself spent time on the pro wrestling circuit, mostly in Japan.

He and Dagostino met a decade ago while both were both working for a medical publisher in Tampa. The duo decided to launch their own company, Cortex Communications, in 1995, catering to the lucrative market for medical education and publications.

With an abundance of chutzpah, hard work and a high-tech answering machine that made potential clients think the business was more than a kitchen-table startup, the two men landed deep-pocket drugmakers as clients. By 1998, the company had 75 employees and $11.5-million in revenues. Late that year they hit the jackpot when Cortex was acquired by HealthAnswers Inc., a Pennsylvania company backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Neither Simon nor Dagostino will say how much money they cleared in the sale, but they still marvel at their timing.

"Soon after the sale, the tech bubble burst and it was ugly, to say the least," said Simon, who remained with HealthAnswers for a short time while Dagostino, who had no medical background, was released immediately. "But that deal gave us the seed for everything we're doing today."

Right now the focus is on preparing for the next stage of Trump-mania. This week, SimDag/RoBEL had employees scurrying to spruce up the site for their big-name partner's scheduled visit on Friday.

In the sales center on W Whiting, a worker was painting an electrical outlet with an artist's brush, trying to match the mottled wash on the wall. Window-washers dangled outside the fifth-floor sales center, making sure the view of the river sparkled. Trump's representatives and marketing reps were mapping out access to the site for their boss' limo.

Though the partners try to take the frenzy surrounding Trump in stride, they admit there are times when they are somewhat daunted at the scope of what they've undertaken.

"If you don't feel that way," Howell said, "you're not being honest."

--Times news researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at or 727 892-2996.

[Last modified February 17, 2005, 01:20:09]

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