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Written by Erik Bojnansky - BT Senior Writer   
January 2012

Aventura was dreamed up by Donald Soffer. He built it and they came. By the thousands. Now his children are fighting to protect it.

CoverStory_1When Donald Soffer first visited a patch of swampy wetlands just south of the border between Dade and Broward counties, his original intent was simply to build a shopping mall.

But after seeing the land, the idea came to him for an upscale community created around an expansive golf course and country club, a vision he sketched on a cocktail napkin.

It is no exaggeration to say that Soffer’s sketch gave birth to Aventura, one of the most affluent municipalities in Florida. “Without him, there would not be a City of Aventura,” former mayor Jeff Perlow declares.

Soffer didn’t develop everything in today’s Aventura, but his master plan, which included building the Aventura Mall and the 241-acre Turnberry Isle Resort and Country Club, attracted other developers.

After Soffer came Coscan Development Corp., which built the Waterways; Joyce Bronson, who developed Mystic Pointe; Julius “Jules” Trump, who shaped Williams Island; and various other builders.

Turnberry Associates, a collection of business entities and partnerships, is another Soffer creation. Its projects reach from South Florida to Orlando, Las Vegas, Nashville, Arlington, Destin in the Florida panhandle, and Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

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The Turnberry Associates’ website states its $7 billion real estate empire consists of 20 million square feet of retail, 7000 apartment and condo units, almost 2 million square feet of office space, and 2000-plus hotel and resort rooms. Among Turnberry’s properties are the newly chic Fontainebleau resort in Miami Beach and an aviation service for private and corporate jets at Opa-locka Executive Airport.

Today Turnberry Associates is a family business run by Donald Soffer’s two middle-age children, Jeffrey Soffer and Jacquelyn Soffer (pronounced sō-fur). Donald, 79 years old, retains a strong voice in the company.

“They work together and they argue and fight, but they settle things themselves,” he told the online Aventura Business Monthly (ABM) this past July. “Usually, I’m part of the fight.”

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Lately they’ve had to do a lot of fighting. With the 2008 banking crisis came a slew of lawsuits have been filed against the Soffer family. Some of those suits are related to Jeffrey Soffer’s attempt to build a 63-story Fontainebleau casino resort in Las Vegas. Several Jeffrey Soffer-owned Las Vegas companies involved in the project’s creation are in debt for close to $1 billion, and a Chapter 7 filing is still being unraveled in downtown Miami’s U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

Aside from matters of debt, Turnberry also faces litigation with a hotel chain that had managed Turnberry Isle Resort since 2004, as well as lawsuits involving two former Turnberry executives Jeffrey Soffer once considered friends.

Meanwhile, Turnberry’s portfolio is shrinking. In February 2010, billionaire investor Carl Icahn, whose Indian Creek mansion is within walking distance of two separate homes owned by Jeffrey and Jacquelyn, bought the partially constructed Fontainebleau Las Vegas at a bargain price: $156 million.

Last year lenders seized Town Square, a million-square-foot Turnberry retail and office complex in Las Vegas, claiming they’re owed $513 million, a foreclosure action Jeffrey Soffer is contesting. In December 2009, Prudential Insurance, Jeffrey’s development partner, foreclosed on Turnberry Towers, also in Las Vegas. And this past July, the South Florida Business Journal reported a foreclosure suit filed against Davie Commons, a 153-acre cow pasture in Broward that Turnberry planned to develop into two million square feet of retail, office, and hotels.

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Turnberry Associates is also selling off property. Last year Triarch Capital bought One Turnberry Place, a nine-story office building near the Aventura Mall, for $53 million. Turnberry also sold Aventura Square, a 113,000-square-foot shopping center, to Equity One for $56 million.

“Turnberry was the thousand-pound gorilla in Aventura,” says Jay Beskin, a former Aventura city commissioner. “They had the most significant and economic power. Obviously, like a lot of real estate companies, they overextended and found themselves in trouble in the downturn. But now they’re trying to recoup somehow.”

The Soffer family declined to be interviewed for this article. However, a source close to Turnberry Associates says the sales are strategic, with the proceeds being reinvested in the company’s best assets. “Right now we have to hunker down,” explains the source, who asked not to be named.

This isn’t the Soffers’ first ride on a financial rollercoaster. Turnberry Associates has dealt with real estate market slumps, disagreements with partners, and a scandal so tantalizing it destroyed a presidential candidacy. Each time, however, the company bounced back stronger than ever.

“That family -- they are survivors,” former mayor Perlow says. “They’re going to end up doing fine.”

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Donald Soffer’s drive to survive and thrive can be attributed to his upbringing. He was raised in the working-class steel town of Duquese, Pennsylvania, 12 miles south of Pittsburgh. “You couldn’t walk outside with a white shirt on for 15 minutes and have it stay white,” he told the now-defunct South Florida CEO magazine in 2004. “There was a lot of strip mining. I don’t remember seeing any leaves on trees.”

Apart from a dismal environment, he also had to deal with anti-Semitism. “I was called a ‘dirty Jew’ until I was 16 years old,” Soffer recalled in his interview with ABM.

His father, Harold “Harry” Soffer, sold appliances and owned a Studebaker car dealership prior to developing shopping malls around western Pennsylvania. “He had a 6th grade education, but he was a great salesman and very creative,” he recalled for South Florida CEO.

Don also credits his teenage obsession with football for his business outlook. “I think I was the first Jewish kid to play on my high school team,” he told South Florida CEO. “Being on a team was very inspirational. The emphasis that was put on winning was just so great. You couldn’t quit no matter how difficult it was because you had to face your neighbors and your friends. You had to persevere, keep on fighting no matter how difficult it got. A lot of that attitude is useful in business. When things are tough and difficult, you have to get down and just work harder at it. Nothing really comes easy.”

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Thanks to his football prowess, Soffer was able to leave for Massachusetts to attend Brandeis University in 1951. “If you wanted to go to Harvard or Yale or the better medical schools, they only took so many Jews. So after the war, the Jewish community said, ‘Screw it, we’ll have our own best university,’ and they started Brandeis,” he explained to ABM.

Seeking to raise more funds, Brandeis hired former all-star football player Benny Friedman as coach and allowed him to recruit players without regard for grades. “Brandeis was a very tough school to get into, academically, and I had never taken a written exam in my life. I had a C-plus average and never had a foreign language,” Soffer added. “There was no way I could have gotten into Brandeis without football.”

But once there, skating by was no longer an option. “We had to take the same classes as the rest of the student body, there was no basket weaving like there is today,” Soffer continued. “Out of the 60 guys who were brought in, 35 kids flunked out in the first semester. They couldn’t keep them in school.”

Soffer stuck it out and graduated with an economics degree in 1955. (In 2008 he donated $15 million to Brandeis University, the largest gift in the college’s history.) Following graduation, Soffer was immediately recruited by the San Francisco 49ers, but he decided to decline the $6500-a-year offer. “I was pretty good, but I really didn’t want to play professional football,” Soffer told ABM.

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Instead he went back home and built shopping malls for his father’s company, Oxford Development. Right out of college Don co-developed a 180,000-square-foot mall in Pittsburgh. Ten years later, in 1965, he helped build South Hills Village, Pittsburgh’s first indoor mall.

It was Harry Soffer who introduced his son to his next frontier: South Florida. In 1967 Harry and a group of investors bought 785 acres of land for $6 million. Back then the three square miles that would become Aventura consisted of mangroves, Australian pines, mosquitoes, scattered tourist cabins, and the Point East retirement community at 183rd Street and Biscayne Boulevard. Much of the investors’ land holdings were also underwater. “Naturally, I got the job of developing it,” Donald Soffer told ABM.

Upon looking at the land, Donald remarked to his father that developing it would be an adventure, says Seth Bramson, a local author and historian who interviewed the younger Soffer for an as-yet-unpublished book about Aventura. The name stuck. (Aventura is Spanish for adventure.)

Even then, Soffer saw the land’s potential. “He wanted more than just a middle-class-type development,” Bramson says. “He had the idea of having a very glamorous high-life development.” The centerpiece of this future wonderland for the upper class was Aventura Country Club, which would be designed by prolific golf course architect Robert Trent Jones. The planning firm of Hall and Goodhue fleshed out the rest of Soffer’s napkin design.

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But first the investors had to drain the wetlands and rezone the land from residential single family to high-rise development, a feat that would raise hell from environmentalists and controlled-growth advocates today.

Fortunately their task was made easier by Gov. Claude Kirk, a self-described “tree-shaking son of a bitch” who was impressed by Soffer’s idea of an affluent city. “We preyed on his boastfulness,” Soffer told South Florida CEO. “He presented it to the cabinet like it was his idea. Then we got all the permits we needed.”

By 1969 Metro-Dade County approved Soffer’s master plan, which allowed for the construction of 23,900 condo units. The golf course helped sell the plan. “The philosophy we worked out with the county was to allow for vertical structures and preserve the open land,” George Berlin, then an associate of Arlen Realty, told the Miami Herald in 1988. Soffer also offered to donate land to the county for the construction of a fire station, a library, and a causeway to Sunny Isles Beach.

The zoning enabled the investors, who operated as DonArl of Florida, to sell portions of this new frontier to other developers at hefty profits. DonArl purchased the land for $5500 an acre in 1967, but sold parts for as high as $2 million an acre in 1981, according to the Herald.

By 1970 DonArl completed the first phase of Aventura Country Club. Then, from 1971 to 1977, DonArl constructed 4000 condo units around the golf course. But Soffer’s father didn’t live to see many of those new condo projects completed. Harry Soffer died in 1972 at the age of 63.

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Differences in building philosophies eventually tore apart the DonArl partnership. New York-based Arlen Realty and Development wanted to build quickly and cheaply. Soffer was so infuriated by Arlen’s mediocre building designs that he changed the name of Aventura Country Club -- which, by 1980, had two 18-hole golf courses, a marina, tennis courts, and luxury hotels -- to Turnberry Isle Resort and Country Club, named after the renowned golfing resort in Scotland.

“He felt that they [Arlen] were diluting the brand,” says a source close to the Soffers’ current company.

When DonArl split in 1977, Soffer called his half of the company Turnberry Associates. Berlin opted to work for Turnberry, where he oversaw the company’s projects in Aventura until his death in 2008 at the age of 85.

Six years later, Arlen Realty defaulted on a $39 million mortgage and went into Chapter 11. Soffer snatched up chunks of Arlen’s 68 acres of land from the company’s backers, including the site of the future shopping mall. “Time proved Don to be right,” Berlin told the Herald.

Aventura Mall was a superstar even before the mall itself officially opened. On January 31, 1983, three months before the rest of the mall opened, Lord & Taylor held a $1000-per-couple black-tie gala. With 250 couples confirmed, an estimated $125,000 was raised for Mount Sinai Hospital, according to the Herald.

CoverShotBy October of that year, the first Macy’s in South Florida, J.C. Penney’s, Sears, and 200 smaller stores were open. Just a third of the size it is today, Aventura Mall still quickly eclipsed northeast Dade’s 11 other shopping centers. Today it is among the nation’s top-grossing malls, and the fifth-largest at three million square feet.

Turnberry Isle Resort was also hitting its stride as a playground for the rich and famous, thanks to the famous attracting the rich.

“You invite celebrities, you give them free room and board, and you create a celebrity image,” Soffer told the Herald in 1997. Among those reported to visit Turnberry in the 1980s were James Caan, Jack Nicholson, O.J. Simpson, Ted Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger, Elton John, Bob Hope, Burt Reynolds, Bill Cosby, Elizabeth Taylor, the Bee Gees, and Madonna.

In his recent ABM interview, Soffer recalled that Turnberry was the “hottest place” on Earth. “Every property I’ve opened has had a great party. I’m great with parties. I had Arab sheiks and princes fly in…for the weekend on their 737s,” he said. “Every major player in Europe and America came.”

But Soffer wasn’t happy when a 1987 Vanity Fair article claimed the resort was frequented by “shady celebrities, models, drug traffickers,” as well as gorgeous women who received, as a Herald article described, “free club memberships in return for helping wealthy men relax.” Soffer initially denounced the story as “lousy journalism” filled with “total lies,” but years later admitted to the Herald: “At one point, Turnberry Isle was the place everybody wanted to be. With any kind of thing, you get the groupies. The drug thing then was just getting started.”

CoverStory_12Soffer also chartered his fleet of yachts docked at Turnberry Isle marina. One vessel in particular was an 82-footer named Monkey Business, which Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, a promising Democratic presidential candidate, chartered in 1987 during his fateful voyage to Bimini with model Donna Rice. When the married Hart was photographed with Rice on his lap, his campaign was derailed. Soffer, who has said he never met Hart, put the yacht on the market for a million dollars.

Following the Hart scandal, the atmosphere at Turnberry Isle Resort mellowed. Instead of wild parties, there were family-friendly townhomes and special courses for future mothers. “It’s no longer, and mostly has never been, the swinging thing,” Soffer told the Herald. “The glitzy crowd has changed themselves. People are not as crazy as they used to be. Overall, Turnberry's image of South Florida has showed the world what a nice place this is.”

By 1988 Soffer had sold half his interest in Turnberry Isle Resort to Rafael Hotels for $20 million. Sometime in the early 1990s, following an $80 million renovation project, Soffer sold the other half to the hotel group. “I felt at the time the hotel luxury business wasn’t doing well,” Soffer told the Herald. “It was more advantageous to have them buy the hotel, and I had other properties.”

Interested in giving “the store away,” Soffer assigned his two children increased responsibilities at Turnberry Associates in the late 1990s. His daughter Jacquelyn “Jackie” Soffer started overseeing leasing operations in Aventura Mall, a task that the 45-year-old University of Colorado graduate continues to this day. Jeffrey Soffer was put in charge of new condo developments and groomed to be the company’s new face.

CoverStory_13Now 44 years old, Jeffrey began working for his father when he was 17. He described himself as a “kid who couldn’t sit still” in a 2005 South Florida CEO article. Hating school, Jeffrey dropped out of a Gainesville community college and founded the Champion Marine boat dealership in 1986. Three years later, Jeffrey, an ex-powerboat racer and licensed pilot, sold the boat dealership and rejoined his dad’s company, where he pushed for Turnberry’s expansion.

“Sure, my dad helped me. He started me in the business,” he told South Florida CEO. “But I took it to a whole different level.”

That new level included buying back Turnberry Isle Resort, then owned by a Kuwaiti pension firm and called Fairmont Turnberry Isle Resort and Club, in 2005, and investing $150 million to refurbish the property. As part of the deal, Turnberry Isle agreed to keep Fairmont as the operator for the next 25 years, unless the company defaulted on its obligations.

That same year Jeffrey Soffer bought the 920-room, circa 1954 Fontainebleau Hotel (where Turnberry was already building two condo towers) from hotelier Stephen Muss for $325 million.

But it was Las Vegas where Jeffrey sought to make his mark. In 1997 he was the first developer to propose building high-rise condo towers in that desert city. Seven years later he claimed to have made more than a billion dollars in sales from his first project, Turnberry Place. By 2004 there were 50 high-rise condo projects being proposed by other developers, including a contingent from South Florida.

“I’ve been there almost ten years,” he told South Florida CEO. “I was there when nobody was.”

The Las Vegas experience influenced how Jeffrey Soffer redeveloped the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. Transforming the crusty old Fontainebleau into a modern resort cost nearly $1 billion. The renovation increased the number of rooms to 1500, created space for 11 restaurants and nightclubs, and added a 40,000-square-foot spa.

“Everything’s brand-new, from the plumbing to the drywall,” he told the Herald in 2007. “The only thing you have here in this hotel that’s old is the concrete.”

But the Beach financial investment paled in comparison to the resort’s sequel, the Fontainebleau Las Vegas, where Soffer intended to use $3 billion in borrowed money to erect a 100,000-square-foot casino, a 3300-seat theater, and a 3800-room resort. He planned to use the Las Vegas location as the flagship for a worldwide Fontainebleau resort and casino brand.

By the time the recession hit, he had five Las Vegas projects in the works.

But even as the national economy worsened, Jeffrey was throwing elaborate parties. In December 2007, he threw himself a $2 million 40th birthday party at Turnberry’s aviation facility at Opa-locka Executive Airport. Performers included KC and the Sunshine Band and Prince. “It wasn’t just a quick sampling of Prince’s greatest hits, either,” nightlife columnist Lesley Abravanel reported for the Herald. “It was a mind-blowing, full-blown concert.” Then in November 2008, Jeffrey hosted a $5 million weekend bash inaugurating the grand reopening of the Fontainebleau, which included a Mariah Carey concert and a Victoria Secret’s fashion show hosted by Heidi Klum.

A Turnberry Associates insider credits Jeffrey’s aggressive business style for the company’s growth. “Turnberry did ridiculously well,” says the source, who requested anonymity. “His business acumen and history are pretty strong.”

His timing? Not so strong. “Las Vegas Fontainebleau was being built when Las Vegas was becoming the worst market in the country,” the source adds. “Every project out there in 2008 and 2009 got slaughtered.”

Jeffrey Soffer may have hoped to turn the Fontainebleau Miami Beach into a casino. In the summer of 2008, Turnberry contributed $30,000 to a political action committee that sought the legalization of gambling in resorts with more than 800 rooms.

But with the fall of Lehman Brothers, a major financier of Turnberry’s new projects, Soffer’s priority was saving the Fontainebleau Las Vegas. He sold a 50 percent interest in the Miami Beach Fontainebleau for $375 million to Nakheel Leisure, a Dubai government-owned resort company that is run by Hamza Mustafa.

Soffer then sank $200 million into the Las Vegas resort to fund cost overruns, an April 2009 Miami Herald article reported.

The project was 70 percent finished when lenders cut off funding, provoking a flurry of court cases. Soffer sued his lenders for the rest of the $800 million in promised loans. In turn, he was sued by several title companies that had insured the $3 billion in loans, claiming he operated a “shell game” that inflated the worth of his Las Vegas companies while limiting damages to the rest of the Turnberry empire. The title companies demanded up to $1 billion in damages from Soffer and Turnberry Associates.

A holding company for Lehman Brothers also sued Jeffrey Soffer and Fontainebleau Resorts LLC, which owned both Fontainebleau resorts, for $298 million, according to the Las Vegas Sun, claiming they personally guaranteed loans for a retail component for the Las Vegas project. Soffer told the Sun he considered those guarantees invalid since Lehman refused to fully fund his loans. (Fontainebleau Resorts LLC has since been dissolved.)

For a time the Fontainebleau Miami Beach was also threatened with foreclosure. Already being sued for $65 million by contractors who claimed they were not paid, a $660 million construction loan came due in August 2009. The hotel was saved from foreclosure after Turnberry and its partners promised to invest another $100 million into the Fontainebleau as part of a restructuring plan, according to Bloomberg News.

In May 2010, in the midst of the Vegas meltdown, Turnberry Associates fired and sued the company’s president, Bruce Weiner, who had worked there for 20 years. Also fired was Bob Vollrath, Turnberry’s senior vice president for nearly a decade. The company’s lawsuit accuses them of accepting a “salary, bonuses, and other payments from Turnberry Residential during all of the time that [they were] actually working against Turnberry’s interest.”

The suit specifically cites the new St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort, which they co-developed with Starwood, allegedly behind Turnberry’s back. “We are entitled to whatever piece of St. Regis Weiner and Vollrath are entitled to,” says attorney Michael Olin, who is representing Turnberry Associates in their suit against the former employees.

Weiner and Vollrath countersued in March 2011, asserting they always had a right to pursue independent projects and claiming they owned a piece of several Turnberry projects.

They accused Jeffrey and Jackie Soffer of not paying them their fair share of the profits, and instead spending millions on a “grandiose lifestyle.” Both Soffers, the suits point out, have a small air force of private jets, propeller aircraft, and a helicopter.

Jeffrey owned a 257-foot yacht, exotic sports cars, racing boats, and a 4900-acre ranch in Aspen, the suit claims, while Jackie assembled an “extravagant art collection” and a second home in Aspen. They are also demanding e-mails and private tax filings from the Soffers dating back to 2004. (Attorneys for Weiner and Vollrath did not return phone calls for comment.)

Olin says the former Turnberry executives are “just trying to embarrass Jeff,” adding, “I’m still wondering why they never bothered to bring a claim against us until after we sued them for taking our corporate opportunities.”

Ironically, Jeffrey Soffer once considered them his most trusted associates, Olin says: “Jeff treated them like family and made them wealthy men. And they did not do likewise for him.”

Adds a source close to Turnberry Associates: “When the world goes bad, you find out very quickly who your real friends are.”

Despite the numerous lawsuits swirling around Turnberry Associates, a company source remains confident the Soffers have survived the worst, asserts there is no liability exposure to Aventura Mall, and maintains that the Fontainebleau Miami Beach is on firm footing: “There are a lot of people out there flinging mud to see what sticks.”

This source also insists Turnberry Associates is financially healthy: “All of Turnberry’s assets are performing, from an operational perspective, close to its peak.”

Signs that Turnberry Associates is becoming aggressive once again are cropping up, too.

On Sunday, August 28, 2011, after struggling for control of Turnberry Isle Resort, the Soffers abruptly fired Fairmont, altered the resort’s website and reservation system, removed the name “Fairmont” from all resort material, and issued a press release announcing that Turnberry Associates was now managing the resort itself.

Later that same Sunday, Fairmont executives checked into Turnberry’s hotel “in an effort to maintain its right to manage the resort,” the chain claimed in a federal lawsuit. By 8:00 a.m. Monday morning, the Fairmont executives were being escorted off the property by security guards. As a result of the incident, Fairmont and Turnberry Associates are once again facing each other in court.

At Aventura Mall there is none of that turbulence. Jackie Soffer is successfully attracting more luxury brand stores, once found only at Bal Harbour Shops. Among the high-fashion brands now leasing store space in the mall are Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Burberry, Lacoste, and Michael Kors. Mall revenues for 2011 are up 50 percent over 2010, according to a company source. 

There’s also speculation that Turnberry Associates still wants to bring casino gambling to the Miami Beach Fontainebleau. A major hint: Gaming industry consultant Emanuel Pearlman sits on the resort’s board of directors.

“Fontainebleau was developed with casino gambling in mind,” affirms Jeff Morr, CEO of Majestic Properties, a real estate company that operates in Miami Beach and Aventura. And though the number of developers seeking unlimited casino rights is growing, Morr thinks the Fontainebleau is still in the running. “Definitely,” he says. “If there is gambling on Miami Beach, it should be at the Fontainebleau.”

The company source pleads ignorance as to whether gambling is being sought at the Fontainebleau, but insists the resort is making plenty of money without it: “Fontainebleau Miami Beach is as good as it gets. It’s a trophy property.”

In fact the Soffers are still so enamored of the Fontainebleau brand that last month they changed the name of their aviation operation at Opa-locka Executive Airport from Turnberry Aviation to Fontainebleau Aviation, boasts five hangars and 19,000 square feet of office and meeting space.

The Soffers have been leasing hangar facilities, once used for its own aircraft, to other corporate jet owners since the mid-2000s. Now plans are in place to expand the aviation side of the family empire.

“It’s great!” says the company source. “They just bought a fuel farm!”

 

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