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Sometimes lauded, sometimes vilified, Jeanne Stosser has shaped Blacksburg's development for four decades.
The Roanoke Times | File 2008
First & Main shopping center.
The Roanoke Times | File 2009
First & Main shopping center.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Jeanne Stosser, president of Campus Management Group and a developer of properties in Blacksburg, at the recent groundbreaking of The Edge Apartment and Townhomes in Blacksburg.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Jeanne Stosser (center), president of CMG Leasing, sits next to Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam (right) and other community leaders during The Edge apartments groundbreaking ceremony in Blacksburg. Before tearing down the old OakBridge apartments to make room for The Edge, Stosser invited Habitat for Humanity to fetch appliances and furniture.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Jeanne Stosser, president of CMG Leasing, was at the groundbreaking in June of one of her latest projects, The Edge apartments in Blacksburg. The facility near the Virginia Tech campus replaces an older block of apartments.
The Roanoke Times | File 2011
A home in Blacksburg's Fiddler's Green subdivision.
The Roanoke Times | File 2011
Fiddler's Green subdivision in Blacksburg.
The Roanoke Times | File 2011
First & Main shopping center in Blacksburg.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Jeffrey Stosser (from left), vice president of development; Jeanne Stosser, CEO; and Scott Stosser, senior vice president of construction at SAS Builders in Blacksburg, have been instrumental in many of the town’s developments.
Sunday, August 4, 2013
BLACKSBURG - Jeanne Stosser says she is tired of the smears.
Having never graduated from college, though she took an array of classes, Stosser built apartment complexes where thousands of university students in Blacksburg and Radford lived. Having scrambled back from a divorce that she said left her near penniless, she developed neighborhoods where home prices reach well into six figures.
In the 40 years since an employment aptitude test advised that she work in sales - and a community college professor recommended that she get a real estate agent's license - Stosser has risen to become one of the region's highest profile real estate developers. She has been a force behind hundreds of millions of dollars of construction, a guiding hand behind SAS Builders, CMG Leasing, Fiddler's Green Partners and more - corporations that reshaped vast swathes of the New River Valley.
Blacksburg has always been the center of Stosser's work. Two of her current projects, The Edge apartment complex and the Midtown Village commercial and residential development at the old Blacksburg Middle School site, bracket Blacksburg's downtown and have the potential to alter its character yet again.
At 66, her legacy is the landscape of a college town that she, along with a handful of others, built and rebuilt in recent decades.
But to many people, Stosser remains defined by a pair of projects from the past 10 years: the First & Main shopping center on Blacksburg's South Main Street, and at the other end of town, the Northside Park subdivision. She is seen as the woman who tried to bring Walmart to Blacksburg and a conventional sewer system to the semi-rural Tom's Creek Basin, and who twice took the town to the Virginia Supreme Court - and lost.
References to the controversies have reverberated in public discussions of Stosser's newest projects, often used by town officials and residents alike as a sort of shorthand for a litany of development-related complaints.
The problem, Stosser insisted recently, is that neither the Walmart battle nor the Toms Creek sewer struggle was her doing. Both were business deals that involved multiple parties, and it was other partners who controlled the controversial parts of the process - proposing to bring in a giant retailer or suing the town to try to force it to build a sewer, she said.
But it was Stosser's name that became attached to the furor. And as the years go by, she admits, the name-calling stings.
"I positively did not bring Walmart to the town of Blacksburg," Stosser said. "I did not take Blacksburg to the Supreme Court. `
"It's ugly to get targeted."
A knack for sales
In recent interviews, Stosser was quick to credit the contributions of co-workers and partners. But she said it was her own drive, her own perspective that launched the pattern of buying and building, acquiring and holding that is now familiar to those who watch development in the New River Valley.
"Raw determination, fear of being broke, fear of nursing homes and never wanting to depend on my children" were her motivations, Stosser said.
"I may seem a little crazy to some people," Stosser said. "But there is method to the madness."
Stosser's energy has been a hallmark for years.
"Jeanne is a go-getter and kind of like a bulldog. ... She will stick with a project as long as she has faith in it," former Blacksburg Mayor Roger Hedgepeth said.
"Jeanne doesn't seek controversy, but she doesn't shy away from it either," added Bob Pack, who like Stosser has years of development experience in Blacksburg.
Having grown up on a farm in Cedar Springs, an area near Rural Retreat in Wythe County, Stosser landed in the New River Valley in the late 1960s as her husband, Paul, took a job at the Corning plant and finished an engineering degree at Tech. She sold Avon products, ran her own furniture stripping and refinishing business, and cared for two young sons.
Then in 1973 came the first of two events that Stosser said set the course of her adult life. She signed up for a study run by Ed Barnes, then a business professor at New River Community College, later its president. Barnes was trying out an aptitude test, and he said Stosser's results pointed to one thing.
"You need to be in sales," Stosser recalled Barnes saying. Then the professor added, "If you're going to do it, why not make some money at it? You should sell real estate," Stosser remembered.
By 1975 she had her license, and she and another woman, a friend who had also just earned her license, were working in Carl McNeil's office in Christiansburg. Not many women sold real estate in the New River Valley then, Stosser recalled .
The way Stosser tells the story, she and her friend just insisted . "Carl's so sweet. He couldn't say no," Stosser said.
McNeil recalls the Stosser hiring differently. "I just seen the ability there," he said recently. "She wanted to go into real estate. You could tell that. ... She come in like gangbusters."
With Stosser working evenings and when her sons were in school, business boomed, McNeil said.
Then came the second event that Stosser said shifted her course. McNeil encouraged her to go to Northern Virginia for a seminar by future investment legends John Schaub and Jack Miller. They were teaching their "Making It Big on Little Deals" strategy, telling audiences that if a person could buy 10 houses and rent them to pay the mortgages, they would eventually have an income stream for a secure retirement.
Stosser had studied - though without finishing a degree - at New River Community College, at Eastern Tennessee State University, Roanoke Business College, and Elmira College and Corning Community College in New York. But Miller and Schaub's lecture, "That was probably the best education I ever had," she said.
Stosser already had begun to move past selling real estate and had been involved in creating the Woodbine subdivision in Blacksburg. The seminar made her determined to buy real estate and hold it.
Building for the future
Stosser said she had decided that for her, long-term financial success would come from investing in land. To this day she does not own stocks or keep money in IRAs, she said.
"Institutions manipulate the stock market, but I know nobody's going to screw with my dirt," Stosser said. "I know that sounds silly but it's that simple."
At the age of 32, Stosser made a plan that she figured would let her retire at 50. She pursued her development ideas by converting the Jefferson Building in Radford into two dozen apartments with commercial spaces on the ground floor. Her family had moved to Kennedy Avenue in Blacksburg, where her sons would ride go-carts through the woods and meadows that she would decades later help transform into the First & Main shopping center.
Then in 1982, Jeanne and Paul Stosser separated. Two years later they divorced. Paul and the boys moved to Kentucky.
Jeanne stayed in Blacksburg. She adjusted her plan, setting a new retirement age of 55, she said.
"I went from '84, broke, literally ... and put all that back together," Stosser remembered.
"She started with absolutely zero, not even a checkbook," marveled Scott Stosser, who now works with his mother, and his brother Jeff, as a senior vice president at SAS Builders.
Jeanne Stosser began what she now calls her comeback by trading her commission work for the more stable income of a salary, working for the real estate division of HCMF , which operated a chain of nursing homes and owned large amounts of property in Blacksburg. At the same time Stosser was lining up friends willing to invest in her ventures. She recalled a mid-'80s home-building venture with two friends where the finances were split up so each partner could get a loan.
"Yes, I used their credit because I really didn't have any at that time," Stosser said.
Freewheeling arrangements were more standard in that era, Stosser said. In the late '70s building of Woodbine, partners sold one another lots so each could make payments on 21 percent-interest bank loans they'd obtained, she said. "I think we put ours on a credit card," Stosser said.
In 1983 Stosser formed Metro and Company Realty, which later became MCR Property Management, and eventually CMG Leasing, a Stosser company that now oversees hundreds of apartments and townhouses, most in Blacksburg, but some also in Radford and Christiansburg.
By 1986 she was developing a small neighborhood of single-family homes on Blacksburg's Broce Drive, and starting what would become 20 townhouses on Green Street. The next year she was involved in building and selling condominiums in a former shirt factory two blocks from Radford University.
"I worked many long hours for years and usually seven days a week between the property I had, the next deal working and managing what was finished. I did the management, collections, cleaning and whatever else needed to be done. I learned if you can't do it yourself you don't know what someone else is doing or not doing. It took me half the time to do it the second time as the first," Stosser said.
Stosser's strategy was fairly simple at first , she said: She mapped a 1 1⁄ 2 -mile circle around the center of Tech's campus and looked for opportunities. Later she brought in consultants to carry out more sophisticated searches, like a 2002 report that pointed her to both the Givens family's long-running Northside Park construction and the land that became Fiddler's Green.
In 1989, Stosser began a run of developments that would last about 15 years and involve building or acquiring and rehabilitating more than 1,100 apartments, townhouses and single-family homes, most of them in Blacksburg.
The multifamily projects were central to rebuilding her finances, Stosser said. They were riskier than the single-family homes she'd built before.
"When I started over I had nothing to lose so I could afford the risk," she said.
These were perhaps Stosser's busiest years, and sealed her reputation and place as one of the town's movers and shakers.
"She is a very prolific developer. She is very ambitious and aggressive," said Bill Ellenbogen, a Blacksburg developer who created the Coal Bank Hollow subdivision and renovated and manages University Mall, among other projects.
"She's done a lot of good for this town. ... She's been very successful," added Pack, whose resume includes Kent Square, a residential, commercial and parking deck complex downtown, and the new Tech-oriented offices and parking structures on Turner Street. "I'm certainly not in her league ."
Pack recounted losing out to Stosser 20 years ago at the start of a project she now calls the highlight of her career. It was a foreclosure auction on OakBridge apartments, which Pack's grandfather and father had owned. "We tried to get it back, but we couldn't do it," Pack said.
He was out-bid by Stosser. The 197 apartments were her first large property, and she renovated them and lived there herself, as her sons also did at various times.
Stosser said that for her, OakBridge was a benchmark of success, of her graduation to a larger set of projects. OakBridge effectively doubled her business, then it doubled again the next year when she acquired the nearby 276-unit Chasewood Downs apartments.
The decade and a half of furious growth culminated in a 2003 auction where Stosser's former employer HCMF sold many of its Blacksburg properties after the company was convicted of Medicare and Medicaid fraud.
Stosser joined fellow Blacksburg developer and construction company owner Georgia Anne Snyder-Falkinham, Paul Duncan of the Duncan Automotive Network, and others to pay $4 million for about 26 acres on South Main Street.
The South Main Street land would eventually become First & Main. The shopping center, along with the Northside Park development Stosser was overseeing around the same time, would bring the notoriety that continues to irk Stosser and those around her today.
At the height of the uproar, the Blue Ridge chapter of the environmental activist group Earth First! would claim credit for covering Stosser's lawn and car and roof with hundreds of yellow frowning faces, mounted on poles like political signs or pink flamingos, and spoofing the symbol of Walmart, which Stosser was accused of inviting to town.
The faces were posted on Stosser's birthday and she found them when she returned from a celebration.
"You rats! I'll never get over that," Stosser said, remembering it.
She made Fairmount, the company developing First & Main, buy her a home security system.
"They had created a problem and I had them fix it," she said.
There were tumultuous meetings, sign-carrying protesters and chanting crowds, and online campaigns of "emails and blogs about what a scumbag I was," Stosser remembered.
"It's unbelievable about what people say," Scott Stosser said recently, thinking back to those years. "We're not remotely like that. We're trying to do good things for our community. I was born and raised here."
The controversy had two parts, and Stosser is adamant she is not to blame for either.
With Northside Park, Stosser was the developer, ready to build well over 100 homes if landowners the Givens family could supply sewer service.
The town had planned to build a standard gravity-fed sewer through the Toms Creek Basin, where Northside Park was located. But the issue turned unusually political as opponents rallied to maintain the basin's semi-rural nature . An anti-sewer majority gained control of Blacksburg Town Council in 2004.
Stosser joined the election campaign, attempting to have the most outspoken of the anti-sewer candidates, Don Langrehr, stricken from the ballot because she said he did not meet residency requirements. State election officials ruled that he could remain on the ballot and Langrehr won a council seat.
Then the Givens family sued the town to try to force it to build a sewer, saying it had been promised in a 1970 annexation agreement. The dispute went to the Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled in 2007 that the Givens' lawsuit was barred because too much time had passed since the annexation.
Stosser supported building the sewer, but said going to court was completely the Givens' decision.
"I absolutely have never sued the town of Blacksburg," Stosser said.
Carroll Givens, who has worked with Stosser, agreed. "That's accurate. ... It was our lawsuit," he said.
As the sewer dispute mounted, plans for First & Main were coming together. In 2006, Snyder-Falkinham bought out the other partners from the auction, and Stosser was left with 14 acres she'd purchased separately, a plot call the Rugby Field.
First & Main was being built by Fairmount, an Ohio-based company, and Fairmount bought an option to develop the Rugby Field as part of First & Main.
Stosser and others had spoken about an idea of including a residential component in the shopping center, but Fairmount decided the finances would not work for this and opted to instead try to land a major retailer that Fairmount principal Randy Ruttenberg later confirmed was Walmart.
Fairmount was the developer and "could negotiate with anyone in the world they wanted to," Stosser said.
As the landowner, Stosser signed the development proposal Fairmount filed with the town, a standard practice. But "we had no control," she said.
What followed was a well-publicized, years-long struggle between the town, a group of citizens and the developer that ended with the Virginia Supreme Court ruling in the town's favor, killing plans for a big box store.
Daniel Breslau of the group BURG - the acronym stands for Blacksburg United for Responsible Growth - said he believed Stosser when she said she wasn't leading the push for a Walmart, but thought she could have done more to reach out to neighbors and other residents.
"I wonder if they really had no choice in the matter," he said of the Rugby Field proposal. "They were still the owner of the property."
Stosser remains the owner of the Rugby Field. "Eventually we will build something there," she said.
A changed atmosphere
In the decade since the South Main Street auction, Blacksburg has become a more challenging town for developers, Stosser said.
In the 1970s, '80s and '90s, it was not unusual for developers to approach the town council members individually.
"I spent a great deal of time explaining my projects" one on one, Stosser said.
Hedgepeth, Blacksburg's mayor from 1982 until 2006, recalled Stosser coming by his office many times to talk about various developments.
"She presented what she did right up front. ... It seemed like 90 percent of what she wanted done got done," Hedgepeth said.
But Langrehr, who stayed on the council until 2011 and who received a campaign contribution from Stosser in his last bid for office, called more formal communications part of Blacksburg's maturation. Acknowledging that he had sometimes talked to developers one-on-one, Langrehr said residents are better served, and can be more informed about development proposals, if the entire process occurs in public.
"We have to give the public as much consideration as we give developers, if not more," Langrehr said.
Stosser is again marking the arrival of a new phase in her career with development at OakBridge. This summer she began demolishing the complex to make way for a denser, 254-unit, 911-bedroom development called The Edge, named for its location across the street from Tech's campus.
The design won plaudits from town officials, such as Mayor Ron Rordam, who said it matches a town goal "to promote infill in the appropriate core areas of town."
Before starting the demolition, Stosser invited Habitat for Humanity to carry off refrigerators, stoves, air conditioners and other salvage to the ReStore in Christiansburg, which sells the item to raise money for Habitat's homebuilding projects. The donation was the largest ever for the New River Valley ReStore and touched off another round of praise.
"This is turning out to be one of the best things we have done," Stosser said after getting a follow-up letter from Habitat.
Another large current project is Midtown Village, which after much debate is stalled as town and county officials schedule further discussions of the future of the old Blacksburg Middle School site.
Breslau said that while BURG has been largely inactive since the Walmart battle, members are keeping a close eye on Midtown Village. Once again, the group supports greater town scrutiny of the development proposal, he said.
"This is a developer who will test the limits," Breslau said.
Stosser declined to say much about the project, other than that she envisioned making changes to it, but thought there was little point to revising it until the two government bodies better reconciled their visions for the property. That might take years, she said, but added that for her, development has always been a long-term prospect.
Despite all the retirement plans of years ago, Stosser said she has no interest in actually stopping her work. She reassembled the pieces of her grandparents' and parents' farm in Wythe County and has a cattle operation there. She recently became a partner in the Blacksburg Square shopping center and dove into trying to straighten out a dispute about parking spaces that would be claimed by a startup farmer's market.
"What I do is an addiction. Biggest hurdle is knowing when to walk away. I am not real good at that yet," she said.
"But I am enjoying my grandchildren more and traveling," she continued. "I have figured out my sons and staff are very capable, so every now and then I can go play. It only took 40 years to take some vacation time.
"Then it is usually to some well located real estate class."
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