Let’s Make a Deal


Photo Credits:
Fort Worth Business Press
(July 10, 2006);
Copyright © 2006
by Fort Worth Business Press.

by Jenny Eure
Fort Worth Business Press
July 10, 2006

Real estate guru Bill Stonaker is a warrior. The Vietnam vet recently battled cancer. Now, he is fighting for his right to develop a $300-million-dollar property northwest of Fort Worth.

Bill Stonaker goes 100 miles per hour, all the time. Even as he hoists one leg up on his knee and leans back in his office chair, he seems as if he could be across the room and out the door in two seconds flat, that is, if he got the right call. He says he’s a deal junkie, and even though he’s been developing commercial real estate for 30 years, the word “retire” has yet to enter his vocabulary.

He works deals in what he calls the hard way, spending as much as eight years from the birth of a development to its completion. He is involved in the whole process, from negotiating with city
representatives to overseeing the lease of every pad site, so that a development is matured. For him, it’s just part of the addiction.

“Some deals, they’re in, they’re out, they’re gone,” Stonaker says.

“But then some of them that you have to baby, it’s almost like you’re raising a kid.”

One of those deals has become an all-consuming battle. On the border of Lake Worth and Fort Worth, a $300-plus million dollar, 206-acre mixed use development called LandMark Quebec has currently reached an impasse. Until the neighboring cities can reach an agreement, it is stalled indefinitely. And for Stonaker, a Vietnam veteran and recent cancer survivor, this may be one situation that even he can’t overcome.

Westward Ho

In 1996, Stonaker and his wife, Patricia Wilson, moved their commercial real estate business, Wilson-Stonaker LLC, from Dallas to Tarrant County.

“We started looking at the opportunities and the growth over here, and it was obvious what was going to happen,” he says.

Since then, Stonaker has focused on acquiring Tarrant County properties and working with a small circle of architects and engineers to produce value-added land development and vertical developments with retail and office space.

Since Stonaker relocated to Tarrant, he’s developed numerous sites, all which came with unique obstacles. One development, called Mansfield Highlands, a restaurant/office/retail row, has only four pad sites left and plans for three hotels in the works. When Stonaker bought the land in 1996, no one wanted it. Fronting Highway 287, it had no access, no roads and no utilities.

“No one wanted to use it – period. Everything that could be wrong with the land was wrong except for the location,” Stonaker says.

It took more than a year of working with Mansfield and its economic development corporation before any work could begin. Stonaker and his team paid for the engineering and purchased the materials from Tarrant County, which supplied the machines and workers. The roads were finished within 10 months. Two-and-a-half years later, he was selling pads for the development.

“We got it done in record time. And it turned out to be a great deal for everyone,” Stonaker says.

“So here we were, we took land that really had no value, it was worthless, and turned it into highway frontage commercial.”

The deal won Stonaker the Texas Association of Realtor’s William C. Jennings Lone Star Award for the Outstanding Commercial Transaction of 1998-1999.

“We still had a business to run.”

Challenges are nothing new for Stonaker.

By 2003, he was having his best year ever – deal wise. It was early summer and he’d already done 18 major deals.

“I was shaving one morning, and I had a lymph node swollen up, and I thought, ‘Well, crud, I’m going to get a summer cold,’” Stonaker says.

Two weeks later as he drove home from an early-morning gym workout, he wiped his hand across his face and noticed the lymph node was still swollen. What Stonaker made the time to do next is surprising, especially for someone who leaves the gym each morning with his Bluetooth already in his ear. He called the doctor to schedule an appointment.

“So I went by their office, and the physician’s assistant comes in, and you know they take your blood pressure and all that garbage that they always do,” Stonaker says. “And she says, ‘I’m sure it’s nothing, but hang on a minute, I’m going to go get [the doctor].’ So she goes and gets him, and he says, ‘Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing, but, what are you doing tomorrow?’”

The next day, he had a needle biopsy. The doctor said they’d be in touch on Monday.

“I said, ‘Well good, but I’m going to be busy on Monday, you can talk to my wife,’” Stonaker says.

“The story goes, that our younger son was in Iraq for the first time. My wife gets a voicemail from him saying, ‘I’m back, I’m fine and I’ll talk to you later.’

Ten minutes later, she gets a phone call from this doc, and he says, “Your husband has throat cancer.”

Stonaker, however, was undeterred. He described the change in his daily routine in two ways.

One, he missed two days with his personal trainer, and two, he couldn’t start any new deals – “which just kills a deal jockey,” he says.

Throughout the seven weeks of his radiology and chemotherapy treatments, Stonaker continued to work almost every day. Although he shed 40 pounds from his 185- pound frame in just three weeks, his intensity never wavered. He ate through a feeding tube attached to his stomach. While his usual superhuman energy was sapped, he still focused on his deals.

“I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t drink, but we still had a business to run. So we stayed after it,” he says.

It wasn’t that Stonaker was without help. In addition to his strong faith, he says he got through thanks to his family, friends and colleagues who rallied around him.

His friend of eight years, Jim Makens, owner of commercial real estate firm The Makens Co., was always willing to drop what he had going to help out, which mostly meant driving around, checking out real estate.

“I remember, he couldn’t eat or drink, and we’d be out looking at real estate,” Makens says. “We’d be driving around, and he’d say, ‘It’s time for lunch,’ and pull out this can of food and straw, put it in his stomach and we’d just keep on driving.”

Clearly, Stonaker’s mind was more preoccupied with real estate than the disease which gripped his body.

Working it out

Bob Kelly, of Robert W. Kelly Architects Inc., has worked with Stonaker for the past few years and is contracted as the architect for the LandMark Quebec development. He describes Stonaker as forthright and energetic, sometimes to the point of wearing people out.

It’s an attribute that Stonaker hopes can help to solve his current real estate quandary. He closed on the Fort Worth land, which borders Lake Worth and is on the corner of Loop 820 and Quebec, more than a year ago. But the site has no access to Fort Worth water or sewer systems. In order for construction to begin on the development, he would have to get water and sewer utilities hooked up to Lake Worth. He can hook up the water lines with no problem, but the wastewater has to be a mutual agreement between the cities, and contingent on Lake Worth’s capacity to serve the extra utilities.

After getting verbal confirmation from Lake Worth City Manager Joey Highfill more than a year ago that Lake Worth had the capacity to handle both lines, Stonaker thought they would be able to begin construction for the development, which has plans for a movie theater, restaurants, and multifamily living and industrial space. Instead, he’s found himself stuck in the middle of more than four years of discussion between Lake Worth and Fort Worth, while his development remains dirt.

Fort Worth and Lake Worth share the Comanche drainage basin, which has been in need of improvements. The cities reached a resolution to cover the cost of improvements, including detention pools, storm sewers and new culverts for the Comanche Creek low-water crossing more than four years ago, but the timeline and cost responsibilities have not been agreed on yet.

“Fort Worth never came forward on the drainage issues,” Highfill says.

However, George Behmanesh, assistant director of the Fort Worth Transportation and Public Works Department, said Fort Worth is in the process of developing detention ponds for two developments. He said improvements to the Comanche Creek low-water crossing are currently being identified as part of a citywide storm management program.

“It will be ranked and we will try to do it as quickly as we can. That is a high priority project for us,” Behmanesh says.

So far, he says there is no timeline for when the improvements will be made.

In order for the development to be able to hook up to Lake Worth’s water, Fort Worth would need to swap its 40-acre lakefront property, which has about five acres of usable space, for eight acres of a 40-acre residential development, which stretches across parts of Lake Worth and Fort Worth, according to Highfill, who discussed the development at an April 11 city council meeting. The swap would substitute Fort Worth’s portion of the basin improvement costs.

“We really want Lake Worth and Fort Worth and the developer to work it out. We just all need to get on the same page and negotiate. Up until now, it’s been ‘no, it’s not going to happen,’” Highfill says.

Dale Fisseler, Fort Worth’s assistant city manager, says the situation was brought to his attention in mid-June, and he plans to negotiate with the city of Lake Worth so that a recommendation can be brought before City Council. One possibility is running the sewer lines under Loop 820.

“My understanding is there’s a lot of issues on the table that have to be worked out,” Fisseler says.

“Time is short, because we do have a developer interested in a development that will benefit both cities.”

Stonaker adds that the development will impact both cities.

“So we’ve got land that we’ve got a lot of money and cash on,” Stonaker says. “We have no way to develop any of the tracts. If you don’t have sewer and water, you can’t use it. It’s keeping Fort Worth from sales tax dollars … it’s just sitting there. So it’s not providing jobs. It could have a very serious, positive impact on the city of Lake Worth.”

If the situation doesn’t reach a turning point soon, Stonaker says he will have to file suit with the Tarrant Appraisal District to prove that they can’t get utilities. Then he’ll warehouse the land, and wait. It’s a harsh reality for a deal junkie.

Makens, his friend and colleague, however, is optimistic when it comes to Stonaker.

“I don’t think he knows what a roadblock is. They’re more like potholes and curves. There are obstacles in development, but he overcomes them with a great amount of ease, really,” Makens said. “He always figures out an angle to overcome the issue.”


Contact Eure at jeure@bizpress.net.

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