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What’s Up? Visionaries: John Wilson

Jan 19, 2016 04:28PM ● Published by James Houck

Whether you’re a chicken-necker from the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay or Eastern Shore local through and through, chances are you’ve enjoyed the hospitality of John Wilson. Truly so. I, myself, had the good fortune to meet, greet, and interview the successful developer on his home grown turf at the newly opened The Inn at the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club on a gray day when visibility at the top span of the Bay Bridge was null. Fortunately, with a welcoming smile and calming sense of sincerity, Wilson made the day a bit brighter and enthusiastically launched into his background, inspirations, and real estate developments—from marinas in Baltimore to residential communities on the Shore, and present-day hospitable venues including The Tidewater Inn and the aforementioned—which have become symbolic of his passion for the community he calls home and his vision for engaging and employing local talent.

“I guess you could say my playground stretches from Easton toward Annapolis,” Wilson states, with the smirk of someone who truly enjoys every mile of the region. His background stretched even further, with family roots planted in Baltimore County.

Wilson grew up in a stable, Episcopalian household with mom Hannah, dad John, sister Elizabeth, and brother Richard. His own interest in development was fostered at an early age by his father—a professional photographer by trade—who decided to build his own house. To do so, he took courses in bricklaying and carpentry, then raised a home for his family with his own two hands; something John, Jr. remembers fondly, “My father’s persistence [was inspirational]…if he wanted to do something, he did it.” Senior also had an interest in horticulture—“It made getting the merit badges in Boy Scouts easier because I knew the difference between a maple and an oak”—which eventually parlayed into a family business and, ultimately, paved the way for his son’s career as a developer.

After graduating from the University of Maryland with a B.S. in Business Administration, John partnered with his family and opened Wilson’s Garden Center in Columbia. “From 1969 to ’84, we ran the garden center [dad, sister, brother]. We worked seven days a week and I loved it,” John says. Years into the venture, John saw an opportunity. “I took part of the land we had there, and developed a small office park; only 12,000 square feet. That was my first real dip into it [development].”

“We also did landscaping for many of the home builders in the area. Every now and then, one wouldn’t pay me and I’d wind up with a couple lots,” Johns recalls.

Between the small office park and peacemeal land acquisitions, John was on to something. His first major project would be Henderson’s Wharf in Baltimore City; a $27 million condo/inn/marina project within a historic warehouse-type building. “I got financial backing, won a development bid, and got started,” John explains. “We were 95 percent complete and had pre-sold many of the condos. Then our financial backer went bankrupt at the finish stage. It wiped us out. I had the experience and the thrill of it all and then the disappointment of what can happen to you. I had all my eggs in that basket at the time.” It was a hard lesson for John.

But, whereas, many folks might give up on such ideas, John was hungry to try again and for the next 35 years, he’d develop marina complexes from Florida to Cape Cod. “I became known as ‘waterfront man’ in my house,” he says with a laugh. He credits his wife, Deidre Ann—whom he met at a Peace Corps entrance exam and later married in ’69—as not only a source of inspiration, but also a huge supporter during those early years fraught with challenge. After more than a few successes up and down the east coast, John and Deidre would settle closer to John’s roots.

In 1998, Wilson’s company, Coastal South, purchased six acres of land and developed the Chesapeake Bay Beach Club in Stevensville, now a waterfront “campus” hosting wedding receptions, and corporate and social gatherings. Two years later, he became one of four partners in a nearby development, Gibson’s Grant, a traditional neighborhood design on a 150-acre piece of farmland. His interest in the Shore became a love and in 2009, he purchased the Tidewater Inn in downtown Easton, renovating its 95 guest rooms, ballroom, and restaurant.

“I enjoy the puzzle of something,” he says. “There’s the opportunity, and then you put together a pro forma for it, a development number, think through a business plan, get it financed, permitted, built, and then operate it.

“I think most of my developer friends don’t want to do that last piece. They want to move on to the next project. I’ve enjoyed the full spectrum. So whether it’s developing a marina and seeing boats in the slips or, like with the beach club, seeing a family actually having the wedding ceremony…that journey from A to B is what I enjoy.”

Most recently, it’s The Inn that’s putting a smile on John’s face. “We always wanted to put a hotel up next to the beach club, but the land was being pursued by Walmart. After 9/11, the government granted funds to develop small regional airports. The county and the FAA ultimately bought this land to expand the existing airport. I convinced the county to hold a contest on how best to develop the remaining land, which they did. And I won. The project was the ‘The Vineyards of Queen Anne.’ Queen Anne’s County is an agriculture district and promotes growth to product ventures [grapes to wine]. I thought a vineyard with retail/hospitality in the middle would be great.”

Then John hit a major snag with the project. “The FAA said, because the vineyard would attract birds, you can’t have vineyards. So we changed our theme at the last minute and will grow hops here instead,” he offers with a shrug of the shoulders, as if to say, “No biggie.”

“People will say with regards to a project, ‘John, you seem to just keep going.’ Well I don’t know what the alternative is,” John says.

“I think we have a responsibility with the building we build, with the businesses we build, that they are examples of what could and should be done within the community. Examples of good architecture, business well done, good stewards. I don’t know too many people that do it for the money. I don’t do it for the money. I get a huge kick out of seeing people grow in our business. There’s a lot of young people who start here, in their first or second job, that help us build. Seeing people grow in their spaces is great,” John concludes. And if John is able to grow a few more spaces, then the community will be all the better.

James Houck
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