From Cows to Cornfields to an award-winning community
(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles that will appear over the next several months in The Daniel Island News commemorating the island community’s 20th anniversary.)
The first time Daniel Island Company President Matt Sloan laid eyes on Daniel Island, it was from the top of the unfinished span of the James B. Edwards Bridge, which extended about halfway across the Wando River from Mount Pleasant.
The year was 1991 and parts of I-526 were still under construction. Sloan, a native of New York City, landed at the airport and made his way to the island, first heading to downtown Charleston and then through Mount Pleasant. Despite the new portion of the highway being closed off to traffic, he drove as far as he could onto the partially constructed bridge and stopped to take in the view. Sloan, just 26-years old at the time, was blown away by what he saw.
“You can see the airport and you go ‘Wow, I’ve never been here before but I can see where I just flew in, and I can see downtown,” he recalled. “In another couple of years, (526) is going to be done and it’s a straight shot in…Here’s this giant farm and cattle ranch and it’s about to be in the heart of the city.”
When Sloan finally did set foot on the island soon after, he was entering a relatively untapped frontier, a quiet 4,000 acre expanse purchased by Harry Frank Guggenheim in 1946 (ownership of the island passed to the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation upon his death in 1971). Used mostly for hunting and farming, it was a place that had attracted few visitors and very little attention up to that point.
“My first time on the property, it was corn and cows,” said Sloan.
But that was all about to change. The City of Charleston had just annexed Daniel Island, in what then Mayor Joe Riley would later describe as his “Louisiana Purchase.”
“He managed to figure out a way to declare Daniel Island contiguous to the rest of the city,” said Sloan, of Riley’s famous acquisition. “He had gotten some neighboring property owners to buy into it and bring the property into the city, and I got involved literally the next day.”
At the time, Sloan worked for the New York-based Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, a public policy firm that had been hired by the Guggenheim Foundation to assess what the annexation would mean for their property. He was quickly dispatched to Charleston to get a firsthand look at the unfolding situation. Sloan had connections to the Guggenheim family. He had gone to graduate school at the Columbia University School of Architecture and Planning with Peter Lawson-Johnston II, whose father, Peter Lawson-Johnston, Sr., inherited Guggenheim’s Cainhoy Plantation, leadership of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, and other family holdings, after his cousin passed away.
In the early 1990s, the Guggenheim Foundation brought in several local and national developers and consultants to assist them in formulating a master plan for the island. Frank Brumley, a proven, successful developer and investor with strong local ties came onboard to offer his expertise. He had helped develop communities on Amelia Island, Kiawah, and Wild Dunes on the Isle of Palms. When talk began swirling about a promising new project on Daniel Island, some of his colleagues urged him to get involved.
“Where else do you find 4,000 acres 20 minutes from downtown Charleston, totally undeveloped?” said Brumley, who moved to the Charleston area from Florida in 1974 and used to come to Daniel Island to dove hunt before it was developed. “It had been leap frogged because of the Guggenheim ownership for the last 30 or 40 years, so you had this jewel just sitting out here with 23 miles of river and marsh front.”
It didn’t take long for Sloan and Brumley to learn that being part of the City of Charleston would be of great benefit to Daniel Island.
“The first dollar that was spent on this community was spent by the City of Charleston,” said Sloan. “It was also clear that the Mayor had a vision for the city…He was the first guy that realized that once the Mark Clark (Expressway) opened, the whole dynamic of how people commute and recreate and shop…was going to change, and that Daniel Island was ultimately going to be the center of the region.”
“Joe Riley was the key,” added Brumley. “His leadership and his involvement. He sold the Guggenheims on it.”
Planning an island town:
So the team got to work. A master plan was created by a group led by acclaimed New York architect Jaquelin T. Robertson of Cooper, Robertson & Partners. The island town would reflect new urbanism and neo-traditionalism, styles that featured sidewalks on both sides of the streets, a grid street system to allow connectivity between neighborhoods, plentiful green spaces and water access, and multiple parks of varying sizes. The Daniel Island Development Company was formed as an independent subsidiary of the Guggenheim Foundation to get the process started.
Sloan and Brumley toured the country to visit other master planned communities for ideas, and they set about luring key entities to be part of the emerging island town. In the mid-1990s, they learned that Bishop England High School was in the market for a new location. The school had spent its first 80 years in downtown Charleston, but they were outgrowing their four acre campus and needed to move. Sloan and Brumley brought school officials out to Daniel Island on a steamy summer day to give them their pitch.
“Matt and I stood at the corner of Seven Farms Drive and Daniel Island Drive…in a corn field, with the officials, two nuns, and Father Larry McInerny,” recalled Brumley. “…It was hot and there were bugs everywhere. And we kept saying, ‘Now you folks need to come out here.’ They said ‘Tell us again what’s going to happen out here?’ I said ‘Trust me, it’s going to be big.”
The Daniel Island Development Company offered to donate the land for the campus. The school accepted the invitation and officially opened its doors on Daniel Island in 1998.
“They were the first people ever to commit to coming here,” said Sloan. “We are extremely proud to have them here. It really put us on the map. It gave us Friday Night Lights football games and it was a real validation. This is a much revered institution in Charleston. Mayor Riley went to high school there, so it was a huge shot in the arm.”
“It was the best thing we ever did,” added Brumley.
The first neighborhood to be developed on the island was Codner’s Ferry Park, funded with assistance from the greenbacks division of Piggly Wiggly, an early capital partner. The first residents moved onto the island in late 1996.
But the Guggenheim Foundation had become anxious about being involved in the development business as a non-profit and elected it was best to sell the property. Brumley and Sloan, who had been working on implementing the master plan for a number of years, decided to make an offer to buy it. Brumley spoke with his older brother, George, a well-respected philanthropist, pediatrician, and academian based at Emory University in Atlanta, for advice on the project. Dr. Brumley and other family members offered to come in as financial partners. In 1997, the three entities made an offer to purchase Daniel Island for $12 million. The Guggenheim Foundation, which also owned another 10,000 acres of property on the Cainhoy Peninsula, accepted and the Daniel Island Company was formed to continue the island’s development.
“They knew Matt, they knew me,” said Brumley, of the Guggenheim’s confidence in them. “They felt that we would implement the master plan that we had worked with Cooper Robertson to put in place, and they were smart enough to know that whatever happened on Daniel Island was going to have an effect on their Cainhoy property, so they wanted to make sure it was well done.”
In the beginning, due to their limited capital, things moved slowly,
“We kind of borrowed every penny we could get our hands on to buy it,” said Sloan. “…We were building out one street at a time. We’d sell five lots and then build one more street.”
To infuse some much needed cash into the project, they decided to bring in an equity partner – Crow Holdings, an investment arm of the Trammel Crow family. The well-respected business with a strong portfolio was a perfect fit, said Brumley. In 1998, they came on board, with investors Greystar Capital Partners and J. Ronald Terwilliger, as a 50-50 partner with the Daniel Island Company and put in capital to fund the island’s two new golf courses in Daniel Island Park, the clubhouse, and residential infrastructure.
“It was just a chemistry that worked,” recalled Brumley, of the pairing. “…So we got it underway and they have long since gotten all of their investment back and a great return on it. They have been wonderful, wonderful partners.”
Soon after Trammel Crow signed on, the Daniel Island Company began launching several new neighborhoods – Cochran Park, Barfield Park and Center Park. They also began developing the island’s northern side, Daniel Island Park. At the same time, the commercial corridor in the island’s town center area started to take shape. Several big entities relocated to the island – including Family Circle Stadium (now Volvo Car Stadium), which opened in 2001 after spending 27 years on Hilton Head Island. In 1999, the Charleston Battery Soccer team moved their operations from downtown to a gleaming new Daniel Island stadium along Beresford Creek.
Also in 1999, the I-526 interchange opened on Daniel Island as part of a land deal exchange with the State Ports Authority. It was an event that “changed everything,” said Sloan, who remembers his excitement in watching the first cars drive onto Daniel Island from the newly created exit 24.
Behind the scenes insights:
At the urging of their partner, George Brumley, the company made additional offers of land to churches and schools – bringing Providence Baptist Church, Holy Cross Episcopal Church, Daniel Island School and the Berkeley County Library to the island. Tragically, Dr. Brumley and 11 of his family members were killed in a plane crash in Kenya in 2003.
“My brother was very much a philanthropist,” said Brumley. “Matt and I used to always say he was our moral conscience…He was a big proponent of our donating church sites and school sites. His basic concept, it was not unique, was that schools and churches are the basic fabric of a community, so you better get them in early and you better get them in the right places.”
After the loss of Dr. Brumley and so many of his family members, Sloan and Frank Brumley re-focused the purpose of the Daniel Island Community Fund, established in the late 1990s, to continue Dr. Brumley’s legacy of giving back. Since its inception, the fund has contributed more than $2 million to local causes. To this day, it remains a source of great pride for both Sloan and Brumley.
“I was proud when we set it up, as a way to honor him, but more importantly – to do good things,” added Sloan. “What makes me proud of it now is it’s resident-led and it will be here long after I am gone and we hope it will continue to run well.”
Another key figure in the island’s early development was the late Charleston attorney Henry Smythe, who had provided local legal representation for the Guggenheim family since 1946. He was involved in all of the discussions about what should happen on Daniel Island and had also spent many years hunting on the island with the Guggenheim family. A small wooden shack once located near present day Smythe Park, which was named in his memory, served as a gathering place for hunters. It was labeled the “Daniel Island Town Hall” and included a nearby skinning shed.
“(Mr. Smythe’s) pride and joy was running a deer club here – for a lot of Charlestonian folks this was a coveted invite,” said Sloan, who still has the old town hall sign displayed just outside his office.
“Henry Smythe had more of an impact (on the island’s development) than anybody else,” added Brumley. “He was the local contact, a successful lawyer who had been here for generations…(The Guggenheim family) talked to him first and last. I don’t think we would have been able to buy Daniel Island if Henry Smythe hadn’t said OK.”
Rapid growth and returns:
In the early 2000s, development accelerated rapidly in what became an era of unparalleled sales activity on the island. In 2002, residential purchases hit $100 million, according to a Post and Courier article published in May of 2003. The surge continued well into the next year, the article stated, with sales hitting $50.7 million between January and March, compared with $13.7 million during the same period in 2002.
“The period from 1997 to 2007 was the best 10 years in the U.S. real estate business that I’ve ever remembered,” said Brumley. “…We paid off all the debt, we paid Crow their investment back, so when the music stopped in 2008, we basically were able to sit it out.”
Their ultra conservative approach enabled them “to sleep at night” added Brumley, so the group made sure they were financially secure every step of the way.
“If you’re loaded up on debt, it’s not good,” added Sloan. “We are as conservative a land development business as one could ask for, and that’s why we’ve been able to stay the course.”
Today, two decades after the development’s first residents moved in, Daniel Island is a vibrant, thriving community with a full calendar of engaging special events and activities coordinated by the Property Owners Association (POA). Although the island is zoned for 7,500 residential units, the final build-out is anticipated in about five years with about 6,000 units, reported Daniel Island Company Spokesperson Julie Dombrowski.
But Sloan and his development team are far from finished. Under a separate entity, the DI Development Company, they are working on two new communities. Carnes Crossroads is already underway in the Summerville/Goose Creek area, and is being developed with virtually the same financial partners as on Daniel Island, including Brumley and his family. The DI Development Company is also overseeing development of a new community on the Cainhoy peninsula, which is being developed by various Guggenheim family interests. With assets remaining on Daniel Island (the Daniel Island Club and the Daniel Island Real Estate office), the team plans to maintain their headquarters here, said Sloan.
“I foresee us staying here,” he added. “There is a lot of work to be done...Our best times are ahead.”
Recently, Brumley reflected on the company’s success.
“Matt and I, I think, have been such a great team,” said Brumley, who credits Sloan with doing most of the ‘heavy lifting’ on the project over the years. “There is a 25 year difference in our ages, so he really brought energy, youth, and intellect, and I brought the experience and reputation…It was a good combination. It’s worked out well.”
It has also been a momentous journey for Sloan, who has spent more than half his life overseeing Daniel Island’s development. In addition to the establishment of the Daniel Island Community Fund, he cites the first time he saw the overflowing bike racks at the Daniel Island School as one of his proudest moments, along with meeting young adults who share with him their memories of growing up on the island. He also gives a great deal of credit to his co-workers, whom he calls “the most experienced team” of master planned community development professionals that exists in the southeast.
“I’m honored and thrilled every day when I come to work to be a small part of making this community a great place for folks to live,” Sloan said.
Since 1996, there have been thousands of real estate transactions on the island. And an equal number of property owners here have, for the most part, experienced good returns on their investments.
According to Berkeley County Deputy Supervisor of Finance Tim Callanan, property on Daniel Island is valued at close to $2 billion today. That translates to about $30 million in property tax revenues annually to the county, City of Charleston, and the Berkeley County School District - a clear indication of the award-winning community’s worth.
“Billions of dollars of investment and thousands of jobs have been generated over our 20 year history,” said Sloan.
For Brumley, who continues to serve as chairman and CEO of the Daniel Island Company, as well as president of the POA, life in this island town has proven to be more than they could have ever hoped for. Clearly, those involved in the island’s early planning saw fields of opportunity among the cows and cornstalks – and the promise of where a bridge to the future might take them.
“I have to say,” Brumley added, “Daniel Island has exceeded all of our expectations.”
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