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Écrit par Jerome   
01-10-2006

Retired tennis stars are courting buyers of luxury housing

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/articl...EG45LFJTN1.DTL

"It starts as a passion, as the first and foremost thing," said Andre Agassi of his new development company, founded with wife Steffi Graf. "Then it's about affecting people's lives for more than a few hours. I want to affect people's lives for years to come."

To hear Agassi spin it, his career in real estate sprang up in sharp contrast to his previous life as a tennis star. Waxing almost elegiac at the ripe age of 36, Agassi manages to sound like former President Jimmy Carter helping build housing for the homeless.

But, of course, the difference is that the homes Agassi and Graf are building are not for the have-nots but the "have-a-whole-lots." Agassi Graf Development LLC, to quote his PR materials, "is a real estate development company focused on the creation of luxury, resort and lifestyle-oriented offerings in partnership with the industry's leading developers and brands."

In the past 18 months, the husband-and-wife team has embarked on developing an ambitious luxury resort with Miami's Bay View Financial and Fairmont Hotel in, of all places, the mountains 90 minutes north of Boise, Idaho, near Lake Cascade. Tamarack Resort, as the project is called, will include a hotel, ski slopes, a resort and spa, a golf course and 50 luxury villas as well as 285 units. (The estimated price for a one-bedroom condo begins at $800,000.) Last week, the couple also announced a partnership with Exclusive Resorts -- a luxury residence club -- to develop residences and accompanying tennis and swimming clubs. (The company will host a private sales event in San Francisco Oct. 11.) The relationship between celebrities and real estate is a long if not always venerable one. When real estate developer Frank Devendorf advertised his little town called Carmel-by-the-Sea in 1910 as a sanctuary for "artists, poets and writers," it was part of a concerted PR campaign. Devendorf had purposely sold off lots at deep discounts to names with cultural cachet like Sinclair Lewis and Mary Austin to attract real buyers.

Now the most typical celebrity/developer association involves an unspoken quid pro quo: Celebrities lend their names to a given development in exchange for a discount on a condo or club membership. Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported on an arrangement between Naomi Campbell and Cipriani Club Residences in New York that allowed the model's name and image to be used in exchange for an undisclosed discount on her luxury condo. Earlier this year, country star George Jones became the national spokesman for Ronnie Gilley Properties LLC, a real estate company that was building the Legends, a residential community of manors mixed with more affordable garden homes in Enterprise, Ala., where Jones would have a home.

But real estate, especially recently, has also beckoned celebrities in more substantial ways. This month, Shaquille O'Neal said he was starting a real estate development company to create mixed-use projects in the Northeast, Los Angeles, South Florida and Louisiana. The O'Neal Group's first project involves a billion-dollar complex including more than 1,100 residential units, an office tower, a luxury hotel, an entertainment complex, a fitness center and a Whole Foods store.

Real estate development would seem a perfect investment tool for celebrities whose branding can help sell projects and whose access to capital can help finance them. But even the most auspicious real estate/celeb combinations don't always work out. In June, George Clooney sold his interest in a failed $3 billion condo-casino project in Las Vegas that would have perfectly embodied Clooney's well-burnished movie star image: a vintage martini casino. The project fell apart financially before it ever broke ground, and Clooney, expressing disappointment, donated the profit from the sale to the African Debt Relief Project.

Indeed, with a softening market in a relatively unknown destination like Cascade Lake, there's no guarantee that Agassi and Graf's brainchild will fare any better. The closest airport is down a mountain road to Boise. And though the area has grown substantially in the past few years, it's never been a place that could command New York real estate prices.

Financial risks notwithstanding, for many ambitious stars with more money and ideas than they can cram into their original profession, real estate development offers an irresistibly broad canvas. Not only can they invest their money, but they can invent a little bit of the world.

For their part, Agassi and Graf seem more committed than the typical celebrity real estate investors. They are real developers, lending not only their money but their vision to the design of the community. When asked what their next development project will be after Tamarack, Agassi hinted that he sees all his work -- even hitting the tennis ball -- as a form of communication with the public. "It took me years to communicate myself on the tennis court," he said. "I don't imagine I'll learn (real estate development) overnight."

In a sense, this explains Agassi's rather grand pronouncements about his desire to affect people's lives "for years to come." As a brand name, he's been blessed with the gift of influence, a force he can direct in a million ways. After years of watching a tennis ball fly across a net, it's not surprising that he's attracted to something as deep and abiding as place making.

But Andre, I don't want to rain on your resort, but do we really need more pristine natural areas developed as luxury destinations with golf courses and exclusive residences?

Honestly, the Agassi-Graf undertaking leaves me torn. On the one hand, in an era of environmental crisis and the rich snapping up real estate like candy at a kid's birthday party, there must be better ways to build a legacy than luxury lifestyle development.

On the other hand, I'm rooting for their success because of Agassi's philanthropic track record. Like Clooney, Agassi is one celebrity who may leverage his real estate largesse in the best possible way. Known as the most charitable of tennis pros, his Agassi Foundation has given some $60 million to support at-risk youth in his hometown of Las Vegas, including the founding of a charter school for underprivileged kids.

No doubt that will affect people's lives far longer than even the loveliest of getaways.

 
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