"We own everything as far as the eye can see except for what's blue," said Philip J. Reilly, his hand motioning toward a vast expanse of land between where he was standing and the distant blue-hued range of rugged mountains south of Denver.
On a canvas of rolling prairies, the Mission Viejo Co. is creating a Colorado version of the highly successful planned community that bears its name in south Orange County.
The land development company is in its fifth year of implementing a 30-year plan to develop 12,000 acres of the 22,000-acre Highlands Ranch that it purchased in southeast Denver for $29 million.
To tackle the mammoth endeavor, the firm has built a 300-person division in Colorado, and it has transferred many of its first-string executives to Denver from its Orange County corporate headquarters, where about 700 employees continue to work on the completion of Mission Viejo and its sister community, Aliso Viejo.
No Plans to Return
Ten of the Colorado division's 13 top officials, from vice presidents on up, previously were employed in Mission Viejo. Phil Reilly, 55,the development firm's president and chief executive, moved to Denver two years ago with the intention of staying six months. Now he says he has no plans to return to Orange County.
Opportunities for the Mission Viejo Co. in Denver are rated exceptional by the company and by real estate marketing analysts. They frequently compare the growth potential of the south Denver area to south Orange County at the onset of its building boom in the 1960s.
Despite the Mission Viejo Co.'s commitment of resources to its Colorado endeavor, its work in Orange County will not be disrupted, according to company officials. They expect that the company will continue its development activity in both areas until after the turn of the century. "It is a brilliant move (for the Mission Viejo Co.) to transplant their development personnel, knowledge and capital to a market that has begun to experience what Orange County experienced 10 to 15 years ago," said Mark Smith, senior analyst for The Goodkin Group, a real estate research firm.
Like the Mission Viejo community, which was conceived 20 years ago, Denver's Highlands Ranch is also master planned for 30,000 homes and 90,000 residents upon completion. The first Highlands Ranch houses were sold in 1981. So far, about 1,100 homes have been occupied.
However, in Denver the Mission Viejo Co. is moving earlier into industrial, office and retail development. In Orange County, the company delayed development of business properties because it believed its land was too distant from the leading edge of population and businesses surging south from Los Angeles.
Mission Viejo Co. officials say that the company's nearest competitor, the Irvine Co., was able to capture most of south Orange County's initial industrial growth because its own large ranch development lies a nudge farther north. As a result, Irvine has attained national prominence for its state-of-the-art, campus-like business parks, while Mission Viejo has gained recognition primarily as a bedroom community.
Development plans for Aliso Viejo, another community that the Mission Viejo Co. is carving on the outskirts of Mission Viejo, call for substantially more employment centers. But the Mission Viejo Co. expects it will take yet another two years before economic pressures mount enough in Aliso Viejo to warrant accelerating construction of retail, office and industrial buildings.
By contrast, Highlands Ranch is poised on a frontier of business expansion. Model homes overlook a horizon of city skyscrapers just 12 miles to the north in downtown Denver. Housing developments and shopping centers push against the community's northern boundary, while to the south virgin prairie lands stretch 40 miles to Colorado Springs.
Off Beaten Path
And although the Highlands Ranch's planned business centers are somewhat off the beaten path, a major new beltway under construction soon will link them to freeways that intersect Denver's urban hub.
It was to seize imminent business development opportunities that Reilly decided to move to Denver. Until Reilly came the company had been losing potential deals to other developers, according to Jim Toepfer, president of the Colorado Division. "It was driving Phil crazy," Toepfer said.
Since Reilly arrived in Denver, he has inaugurated a $2-billion plan for developing business properties on 1,200 acres of Highlands Ranch over the next 30 years.
However, in Denver, as in Orange County, the Mission Viejo Co.'s primary mission is to build an old-fashioned hometown. "We try to tell our business people that we are different from most business properties because when you locate your business here you also have a community and all the things that go with it," said Reilly.
Sense of 'Deja Vu'