The Real Deal Miami

Florida developer makes inroads in NYC with vision for Queens Racetrack

By Sarah Portlock | May 21, 2009 05:11PM

Florida-based developer Don Peebles — who, last year, had grand visions for expanding into Manhattan — isn’t letting the recession quash those goals.

This summer, Peebles, who Forbes recently ranked on the top 10 list of wealthiest African-Americans and is worth $350 million, will open an office in Midtown Manhattan. And, last week, he was part of a team that submitted a gaming and entertainment bid for the Queens Aqueduct Racetrack redevelopment project to be operated by MGM Mirage. The proposal includes 4,500 video lottery terminals and multiple fine-dining establishments.

Tomorrow, he is speaking at the annual Queens Economic Development Corporation breakfast and said he’s excited to share his enthusiasm and optimism in light of the current recession.

“Given the dysfunction in the marketplace, [the market has] presented some significant possibilities for companies like ours to come in and buy — and buy well — and be in a position where we could be able to come in and find some development opportunities,” he said.  

Peebles added: “My approach is, you buy when fewer people are buying and sell when fewer people are. It’s a contrarian approach, but you go against the grain and you get rewarded for it.”

Last year at this time, Peebles scheduled whirlwind days of meetings with investors and brokers as part of his New York launch. Plans for a luxury hotel are on hold, but the aqueduct project caught his eye and he developed this fine dining and gambling pitch. Peebles hopes that people want to stay close to home, and the aqueduct is a viable, local escape.

As he looks for office space himself, he is also buying up underdeveloped buildings and vacant lots throughout prime Midtown and several downtown sites, he said, keeping mum about any further details.   

“What we’re looking at is development sites that are under some significant distress, and where there are opportunities to buy and hold them until the next development cycle,” he said.  

But first he must consider how large an office presence he wants to have in New York — a decision he is making in the coming weeks.

“I don’t see development opportunities for New York City, aside from the aqueduct, for a while,” he admitted. “I think it will take three to five years before there’s an environment for any type of new development.”  

But, any hints of a recession just motivate Peebles to work harder, which is the message he’ll share with Queens-based developers tomorrow.

“Now it takes a great deal more fortitude and insight and a great deal more vision to look at the current environment we’re in and see opportunity. Now is not the time to focus and call it a day — now is a time to camp out and find the opportunities and go into the woods,” he said. “Now’s the time of having hope and looking at the opportunities that are there.”