Would you call them greedy?
A family that’s selling a waterfront mobile home park says it’s “trying to do the right thing.”
By ANNE LINDBERG
Published July 3, 2006
SEMINOLE — Chris Travis and his family have been called all kinds of names. Unfeeling devils, greedy landlords, the type of people who would kick elderly residents out of their mobile homes to make a few quick bucks.
But this is more than a few bucks.
For the Travis family, a piece of waterfront property their grandfather purchased for less than $150,000 is now bringing offers of up to $65-million.
“I think 95 percent of the people would do the same thing,’’ Travis said last week. “It’s just business. It’s not public housing.’’
Extraordinarily high profits are a driving force behind the recent rash of sales and closures of several Pinellas mobile home parks, many of which have been held by the same family for generations.
Amid the ongoing saga of thousands of mobile home residents suddenly ordered out of their homes, the case of the Travis family offers another perspective.
The Travises and their attorneys have watched and learned as mobile homeowners in other parks have become increasingly combative, opposing efforts at rezoning and even filing lawsuits to block the closing of their parks.
For years, Travis said, they have been warning Harbor Lights residents that the park would not remain a mobile home park.
Now that a sale is imminent, the family is offering mobile home owners a $3-million buyout, more than four times what the state requires them to pay. The Travises’ deal would give each owner $2,250 to $15,200, depending on how long they’ve owned their homes.
The tiered offer gives the most money to mobile home owners who have been there the longest.
The Travis family hopes it will set a precedent for treating displaced mobile home owners.
“We’re trying to do the right thing,” Travis said.
The Harbor Lights Homeowners Association has until Monday to decide if it will take the deal. If it does, individual homeowners will have the option to take the money or sue.
Association president Mike Rizzo thinks most homeowners will take it.
But Sarasota lawyer Allen Bobo , who represents the Travises and their East Madeira Corp., expects some to file suit.
“It’s divisive by nature,” Bobo said. “Some are going to want to fight.”
Chris Travis’ grandfather Roy already had developed several mobile home parks in Michigan when he moved to the Seminole area in the 1950s.
He opened Bay Pines Marina in 1953 and in the 1960s began developing Harbor Lights Mobile Home Park in Seminole.
Chris Travis said his grandfather always knew that the prime waterfront land wouldn’t be a mobile home park forever.
If there had been condominiums back then, Travis said, his grandfather would have built those.
Roy Travis died in 1980.
His sons, Royal and Dennis, then had their turn at the company’s helm. Nowadays, East Madeira, the title holder to the park and marina, is run by Royal’s four sons, Dave, Tim, Richard and Chris. Royal has retired, and Dennis owns other properties.
Chris Travis, 37 and the youngest of the four, said his grandfather’s prediction started to ring true a little more than three years ago.
As hurricanes became stronger and more frequent, insurance became more expensive and harder to get. The news was full of horror stories about hurricanes decimating mobile homes.
The equation was simple, Travis said. If a storm hit, Harbor Lights, situated on the waters of Long Bayou, would be gone. So would the income. “We would be out of business.”
Then came Hurricane Charley, which was slated to hit the Tampa Bay area until it took an abrupt turn into Punta Gorda, devastating mobile homes and other structures.
The Travises began preparing to end Harbor Light’s existence as a mobile home park. They went to the homeowners’ association and explained that Harbor Lights would not always be a mobile home park.
They promised the association would get right of first refusal should the park ever be sold.
And they warned incoming residents.
Although they do not sell mobile homes in the park, they have the right to approve as tenants those who do buy them. Beginning in 2004, they had newcomers sign a document acknowledging that they had been told the park “could be converted from mobile home lot rentals to some other use in the future.”
They did not put the 34-acre park on the market, but they did field “inquiries from developers seeking an alternative use for the property,” according to the document new tenants signed.
“We’ve always been upfront with everybody,” Travis said. “We’ve never said we would never sell. We’ve said the park was not for sale.”
Last year, they got an unsolicited offer from Sun Vista, owned by local developer John Loder. He offered $47-million for the park and $18-million for the marina — a deal worth $65-million. The Travises said yes.
They told the homeowners and gave them a chance to come up with the $47-million to match the offer. But the residents, mostly elderly and on fixed incomes, were unable to do it.
From then on, the Travises had new mobile home buyers sign a form that told of the sale and warned that the future would be uncertain: “The community is being sold as an operating mobile home park. However, the buyer under the present contract for sale has indicated an intent to change the use of the land.”
The homeowners were horrified. They appeared before the Seminole City Council to tearfully plead that the sale be stopped. The council had no power to stop the sale, but publicly asked that the homeowners be treated fairly.
The deal ended up falling through. Loder and the Travises ended up in court, and the homeowners relaxed a bit, feeling they had some time because the lawsuit would scare off other buyers.
Earlier this year, Crescent Resources LLC, a North Carolina land management and development company matched Loder’s $65-million offer. This time, it was $45-million for the park and $20-million for the marina.
Again, the homeowners were unable to match the offer.
Crescent, which was formed by Duke Energy in 1969, required that the owners be given their six-month eviction notices before the deal closes. The notices should go out later this month . The closing is scheduled for mid August.
The Travises’ $3-million settlement offer would be tiered, depending on how long homes have been owned.
Those who bought later and signed the acknowledgement forms would receive the smaller amounts. Most recent purchasers paid little for their homes, Travis said, producing a list of the 13 most recent transactions. The list showed prices ranging from $500 to $6,500. In a few cases, the owner will get more from the settlement than he paid for the home.
And, in some cases, much less. One woman, Travis conceded, paid about $95,000 for a waterfront home last year, shortly before Loder made his offer.
Travis said he sympathized for her and others who would lose, but he is not to blame. “We did not take advantage of her,” he said. “The person who sold that to her for $95,000 did. … We never sold any of these people those homes. They bought them from other people who are laughing all the way to the bank.”
At some point, he said, the buyer has to take responsibility and not try to recoup losses from someone who had nothing to do with the transaction.
The deal is far more than required by law, which allots $1,375 for a single-wide and $2,750 for a double-wide if the trailers cannot be moved. With 288 mobile homes in the park, that would amount to $657,250.
If the mobile home owners sue and lose, they get nothing.
Travis said he has elected to do more than required by law to help out the owners and to try to be fair.
But that hasn’t appeased some of the owners, who are scared and angry and feel they have few options.
“I’m tired of people yelling at me,” Travis said. “I’m just dealing with the eggs that are being thrown at me. … It’s a tough transaction, there’s no question about it.”
If the sale goes through, Travis said he thinks the family will focus on retail centers like one they’re finishing on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg.
“We like the retail centers,” he said. “They’re a lot easier to deal with.”
People in business, he said, know how things work.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.
[Last modified July 3, 2006, 22:32:55]
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