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Published: Monday, 11/7/2005

Timberstone Group carves high, rapid arc in Toledo market

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

They've brokered multimillion-dollar land deals in Toledo s hot Franklin Park area.

They own a big chunk of downtown s boldest warehouse loft conversion.

And they have their fingers in shopping centers, a roadside billboard, and a Lake Erie resort development.

Timberstone Group Inc. and its investors have become major players in northwest Ohio real estate circles over the past two years.

Our goal is to build a portfolio of high-value assets, said Dan Sandwisch, 39, the firm s president and founder. We try to do the right projects at the right time and in the right location.

Veteran developers have followed Timberstone s trajectory with amazement and some skepticism.

The big questions: Has the firm overpaid for land? Will it be able to restore and maintain full occupancy in new and revived shopping strips at a time when northwest Ohio s economy is struggling?

The proof is in the success of the projects, said Mike Denman, a Timberstone partner and vice president for real estate development. Most are full or nearly full, he said.

Still, Sam Zyndorf, commercial real estate executive with the Toledo office of Signature Associates, questions whether the deals will pan out.

Timberstone spent $4.6 million to assemble 2.5 acres off Talmadge Road at Sylvania Avenue near Westfield Franklin Park mall. That s a big number, said Mr. Zyndorf. As a developer, I don t know how you can justify those numbers. That s a $5 million investment, when you include acquisition and demolition.

Developers say the strip center built there is fully leased by businesses such as an ice cream store and a dental practice. So far, however, only one tenant, a discount hair salon, has moved into the project called Talmadge Town Center.

Most important for Timberstone, executives said, the project has fetched the kind of premium rents that predominate in the Franklin Park area. And, with the recent acquisition of a flower shop site on the corner, Timberstone has created more development opportunities.

However, vacancies remain at a renovated Chesterfield Plaza, on busy Conant Street in Maumee, and the Shops at Timberstone, which is anchoring a retail/residential development called Covington Place in Hancock County s thriving city of Findlay.

But Timberstone executives said they re confident of finding tenants. In Findlay, for example, developers expect a pending road expansion project to turn the area surrounding the development into a major traffic corridor.

And, they added, the Maumee project is 75 percent leased.

Longtime real estate investor Harvey Tolson, who owns shopping centers and commercial projects in the Toledo area, admires the firm s aggressiveness.

They re taking a lot of risk, he said. But people say that about me, too.

After a recent lunch meeting with Mr. Sandwisch, Mr. Tolson said, We don t know what the end will be. But it looks like they re headed in the right way. They re doing some marvelous things. They re paying big prices for the land. They re getting the big rents.

I m impressed with them.

As part of the Franklin Park land purchases, they acquired a billboard that the previous owners leased to outdoor advertising giant Lamar. But rather than continue to collect reliable rent payments, Timberstone executives decided they could make more money by operating the billboard themselves.

We approach the billboard like any tenant, said Mr. Sandwisch. It s a revenue source.

The conference table at the firm s headquarters in the Wolf Creek Business Park in Springfield Township is bare except for three items: two calculators and an adding machine.

Mr. Sandwisch described the staff of 10 as a mix of maturity and young energy.

Several staffers, including the president, are in their 30s. Mr. Sandwisch said the average age is over 40.

Mr. Denman, who is in his early 30s, joined the firm from construction giant Bostleman Corp., of Maumee. Finance Chief Richard J. Smith served in a similar capacity for the now defunct Cavalear Corp.

Earlier in his career, Mr. Sandwisch put in a stint as operations chief at Solar Cells Inc., a solar panel producer formerly owned by his grandfather, the late Harold McMaster.

Mr. McMaster, who died in 2003, was a wealthy inventor who founded several companies.

His grandson said he doesn t want to rest on those laurels, however. What he did had nothing to do with me, Mr. Sandwisch said. He made his way and I m trying to make my way.

But the example that Mr. McMaster set has been an inspiration for the younger man.

Harold was always focused on doing what was right and doing what was fair. He believed that if you tried to do that every day, most of the rest took care of itself.

Mr. Sandwisch grew up in Elmore and attended Woodmore High School, where he ran track.

His father was a farmer and his mother was an elementary school teacher.

The Timberstone president graduated from Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio, and Columbia University, New York, where he left with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Before returning to Ohio, he put in a short stint as a management consultant in Boston. At the time, Mitt Romney, current governor of Massachusetts, was managing partner of the firm, Bain & Co.

Besides his work at Solar Cells, Mr. Sandwisch co-founded Mobius Sorting, a Perrysburg Township firm that provides quality control services for the auto industry. He sold his interest to his partner in 2000.

He launched Timberstone in July, 2003, as a construction company although it quickly evolved into a firm specializing in real estate development and construction management.

As the staff has grown, Mr. Sandwisch has narrowed his focus to employee and investor relations.

Timberstone s projects are financed by a mix of bank loans and private equity. The firm works with a half-dozen wealthy investors. Mr. Sandwisch declined to identify them, but said that all have ties to northwest Ohio. When needed, investors outside the core group are brought in.

Explaining Timberstone s strategy, he said: The opportunity we see is to in-fill areas where the demographics are strong but maybe the shopping center needs new energy.

The firm doesn t chase the quick buck, the developer added. We re doing the projects to own and to hold, Mr. Sandwisch explained.

We could be there for an indefinite period of time as owners. That reduces, rather than increases, the risk.

Perhaps the firm s highest-profile project is the 52-unit Bartley Lofts, with balconies and large windows providing a panoramic view of a Toledo city center that has made big strides but that still struggles with blight and vacant buildings.

The first residents are moving in, although the project is several months behind schedule. Nearly two dozen units remain unsold in the seven-story, $10 million project, but developers are confident they will sell once prospective buyers get a look inside.

There are so many doubters out there this was going to get finished, Mr Denman said.

Timberstone was an equal partner with Park West Realty on the project. Joe Swolsky, of Park West, praised the construction management expertise provided by Timberstone. I can t tell you that we re going to make a lot of money, but it s been a lot of fun, Mr. Swolsky said.

For their part, Timberstone executives say they are looking at other residential projects in the downtown area.

The two firms are eyeing conversion of the Berdan Building, at Washington and Erie streets, for residential and commercial use.

The firm has also provided consulting assistance to Clearwater Preserve, a planned waterfront development in Portage Township in Ottawa County.

Meanwhile, Timberstone is beginning work on renovation of the recently purchased DeVeaux Village Shopping Center in West Toledo.

The deal didn t include the former Food Town supermarket, which is reportedly under consideration by another buyer as a site for a for-profit hospital.

And in Sylvania Township at McCord Road and Sylvania, the final spot in a renovated shopping center named Timberstone Commons was recently leased.

The tenant is Don Stump, of the Lifestyles For Ladies Only fitness chain.

Mr. Stump is also considering DeVeaux Village for a Lifestyles site. He said he has been pleased with the Timberstone team.

They re out there, they re aggressive, and they re good guys to work with.

Contact Gary Pakulski at: gpakulski@theblade.com or 419-724-6082.



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