Besides Natural Retreats Chief Investment Officer Charles Adams, who has been operating the property since 2005 in one way or another, the person who likely has the most to win or lose with Bundoran Farm’s success or failure is Chad Rowe, whose job it has been to sell the the farm’s lots, first for Celebration and now with Natural Assets as the head of marketing and sales. Rowe is responsible for Spence’s interest in the property, having introduced him to Adams during a business lunch at The Boar’s Head in 2010.
A friend of Rowe’s was working at the K Club when Spence was consulting for a company called First Light Development, which was working on fractional sales while Natural Retreats was booking and operating bank-owned properties in Ireland. Celebration Associates had its hands tied by Crosland’s debt, so Adams and Rowe were looking for a new investment partner.
“We wanted to entice Matt to take a look at some of the properties in the U.S. Knowing his model for the vacation side of the business, Natural Retreats, we thought there would be a lot to look at here,” Rowe said. “A lot of resort development projects had started well and then kind of leveled off with the economy and needed some serious help. And Matt saw that right away, that there were prime assets in areas of natural beauty or at the doorstep of national parks, like South Fork Lodge.”
Rowe, 43, is originally from Virginia Beach. In his 20s he went to work for Intrawest, a Canadian corporation that operates international resort properties and ski areas like Whistler and, closer to home, Snowshoe. Real estate, particularly in second home and vacation markets, was booming, and Rowe rose through pay grades and traded locations along the way, living in Aspen, Savannah, and Snowshoe before eventually winding up with his wife in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. Adams hired him to sell the Homestead Preserve in 2004, and then in 2007, Rowe arrived in Charlottesville to focus on Bundoran. He had come back to Virginia to start a family, but he was also licking his wounds from a real estate collapse he and many of his clients had felt acutely.
“From the sales side, the real estate side, it was tough because you bring a lot of people along with you in those investments and on the resort model that’s what it is, an investment, in their financial world but also in their families and their lifestyle,” he said. “They invested in houses in resort locations that they thought they would be able to enjoy often for the rest of their lives or at least sell when they wanted to and in a lot of cases that didn’t happen and you’re in that with them whether you like it or not.”
Starting in 2012 lots at Bundoran began to move again, but the bank couldn’t sell the development.
“I think part of it was not only was the market flat in the U.S., but people had taken some hits and the developers had lost some excitement. They’d lost their energy, their mojo, and Celebration was the same way,” Rowe said. “Matt not only saw good financial value in the U.S., he brought energy, a youthful exuberance to the vacation and real estate market that I hadn’t seen since my days at Intrawest. That was cool. It kind of got me up and back on track a bit and I know Charles Adams would say the same thing.”
When I talked to Spence, there were moments when his story sounded too good to be true. He wants to do the right thing and make money. He wants to preserve and develop. He wants to sell a vision of America to Americans based on living the good life in natural surroundings and he wants it to be accessible to everyone. He wants to reform the National Park Service system of limiting competition to operate concessions and accommodations. And he wants to do all of that from Charlottesville.
“Matt’s strength is that he does buy his own story. He believes it and he’s running with it and that’s why we’re in it,” Rowe said. “I don’t think we’re naive. I think we see somebody that’s going to drive a new line to this business and why wouldn’t you get on board with that if you’re in this industry. You can sit by and watch or you can hop on board and get involved.”
Spence is matter of fact about his ambition. He bristled when I suggested his ideas were informed by an English romantic sense of our country.
“I was attracted to this town because of its beauty, because of the people I’ve met, who have come here. Being British here I don’t feel different. Some people know more about my country than I do,” he said. “There is a can do attitude here. But I do think the town needs to work harder. I do think there is an element here that’s born to money. I start with the realtors ’cause they’re about the energy here and some of them need a kick up the butt.”
When Rowe says Spence believes his own story, there’s more to the story. In 2003 Spence didn’t have his own business. Now he’s got a multi-million dollar international portfolio. He’s grown fast by following his instincts and taking advantage of opportunities, many of which presented themselves in an unprecedented crisis in the vacation accommodation landscape. So how does a guy like that pick Charlottesville?
The story he tells by way of explanation took place during the period when he was meeting with Adams about potential American properties. Left alone on the Fourth of July weekend, Spence took a drive through historic Virginia. The blisteringly hot, humid day he decided to base his company in Charlottesville had a kind of mystical element to it. He drove down to Williamsburg to check it out and said when he saw British flags lining the streets, he took it as a sign. His historical interest spurred him to drive to Yorktown, but he didn’t stay long, because the accounts of the English defeat depressed him. He’d brought his running kit, so he drove on to Jamestown Island, thinking he would run the five-mile walking loop.
After a half hour, his English brain was cooking in his skull. He had his hands on his knees in the midst of a scrub pine forest that afforded no views of the water. Gasping for air, he looked up to see a small post commemorating a 1608 land grant from the British Commonwealth to a man named Paul Spence.
“I probably had a moment that Americans have when they realize where they really come from. That’s the first Spence I’d seen with a date that early,” he said. “It could well have been one of my ancestors was one of the first to come to America to build a life. And it was that moment I said, ‘That’s it we’re doing it.’ I didn’t have a site yet. I just said, ‘That’s it and Charlottesville’s the place.’”
But for every one of Spence’s instinctive ideas there’s a practical baseline. He believed in Bundoran Farm, but he also bought it for a song. Spence fell in love with Charlottesville in a very English way as he was shopping for other U.S. properties. He was thinking he’d end up in Monterey, Boulder, Santa Fe, or Asheville. But the drive out Garth Road with takeaway sushi from Whole Foods on his lap felt like England dipped in American sunshine. After a weekend of watching families walk down the Mall, he told Zoe they were moving. She understood why the company had to focus on the U.S., but didn’t get why she had to come with the kids.
“I told her it’s got to be me, because they’re not going to believe anyone else,” Spence said.
In the past few months, Spence has met with the owners at Bundoran Farm, individually and in groups, and the story he’s told them has made sense. “We’re certainly not going to let people build 90 McMansions. We’re going to be draconian enforcing the architectural rules. It’s not going to be easy to build a home. I think that will scare some people off. And I hope it does,” he said. “Because when you live in a community, you’ve got to think about being a neighbor and a stakeholder. Don’t sit in your house and say nothing to anybody and don’t walk in the street and ignore people. If you don’t want the downsides of a community, buy a house at the end of a street.”
He feels he’s arrived at the beginning of a new era for Charlottesville. At the farm, he wants to make small changes, perhaps add vegetable plots to the agricultural checklist and a saddle club for the riding members. And, he wants to sell land, the mission, and the story in a way that he can tell it again, because the real estate business is turning around.
“The market is in a better place. It was luck. It was not judgment. No one can deny that that will help Bundoran. It will help Charlottesville, and it will help the U.S.,” he said. “We are not going to change anything to what was already a fantastic plan and a great place to live. What we are going to do is accentuate what it was supposed to be from a farming aspect.”
But his plans are bigger than Bundoran. When we spoke in his office, Spence’s voice reflected excitement and impatience at different times. He looked out the window and pointed at the shell of the Landmark Hotel, a monument to another real estate entrepreneur’s wild ambitions, purchased by another ex-athlete turned investor and developer. He called it a disgrace, saying it should have been torn down by now, would have been in England.
When he talks about his vision for the town, it’s a similar refrain to what you hear from the economic development crowd, but there’s an edge in it too, a disquiet with the town’s comfy past as a seat of wealth and with what he perceives as a lack of ambition from the moneyed class. It’s the voice of a Yorkshireman who has fallen in love with Virginia.
“America has got over 350 million people. Its leisure market is worth over $300 billion. It’s the largest domestic travel market in the world. Not even 60 percent of Americans have a passport,” Spence said. “We could build 3,000 Natural Retreats and not even make a dent in that market. We want to pick the top 30 to 40 locations in America and we either want to do a small little inn with a few cottages or we want to be part of what we’re doing at Bundoran. We are always going to be involved in creating communities, but they might be places where people are just going to vacation.”