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THE STATE

McCourt Took Some Time to Develop

The Boston real estate millionaire failed in bids to buy the Red Sox and the Angels, but he is considered a tenacious businessman.

October 11, 2003|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The people of Boston might not be surprised to hear that Frank McCourt took a hard-line stance during the last few days of negotiating to buy the Dodgers.

The real estate developer, who leads an investor group that reached an agreement in principle to purchase the team from News Corp. on Friday, is known around his hometown as a bare-knuckled businessman.

"He lowers his voice and his face gets determined," said Vivien Li, director of a Boston watchdog group who has squared off against McCourt yet considers him a friend. "He'll say, 'Don't even try to bully me.' "

Supporters call it tenacity. Opponents offer a different spin.

"He is very much a my-way-or-the-highway guy," said a rival Boston developer who asked not to be named. "I don't think Frank McCourt has ever had a partner he didn't end up in a lawsuit with."

And McCourt usually wins, walking away all the richer.

Both sides agree this trait helped McCourt, 49, transform himself from a small-time developer into a major player, the kind of man who could lead high-powered investors in buying a Major League Baseball team.

Baseball runs in McCourt's bloodline. His grandfather was a part owner of the Boston Braves and, to this day, he is a longtime season-ticket holder at Fenway Park.

"He has wanted this opportunity for a long time," said Larry Lucchino, president of the Boston Red Sox. "He's a passionate fan."

With a net worth estimated in the hundreds of millions, he took a run at buying the Red Sox in 2001, hoping to build a stadium on land he owned near the waterfront. McCourt backed off as the team sold for $700 million, a price that included a regional sports network.

Earlier this year, his attempt to purchase the Angels ended amid questions about financing.

The McCourt family made its fortune during four generations in heavy construction, working on such major projects as Logan Airport.

After graduating from Georgetown University in 1975, Frank McCourt established an offshoot of the family business with designs on becoming a developer. He purchased dozens of acres in South Boston, which, at the time, was considered an urban wasteland.

McCourt saw something different. Those properties included 2,100 parking spaces he could rent to commuters, generating income while he promoted a vision of redevelopment that today has helped make "Southie" among the up-and-coming areas on the East Coast.

"He bought that property at a time when it wasn't appreciated," said Seth Kaplan, a senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, who has dealt with McCourt on development issues. "He certainly has a clear vision of what he wants to do."

But even as his wealth and sphere of influence have grown, McCourt has remained something of a mystery.

He has steadfastly avoided the media. On Friday, he released a brief statement and announced that, in accordance with league policy, he would make no further comments until the end of the World Series.

In Boston, people know little of him except that he appears to be a devoted father to his four sons and can be seen at their various sporting events.

The public occasionally catches a glimpse of what is described as an extraordinarily close relationship with his wife, Jamie, an attorney who is intricately involved in their business.

McCourt is well known for donating money and time to numerous charities. Yet even in his community involvement, serving on various boards, he has been known to ruffle feathers.

"He has very strongly held ideas and expresses them wherever and whenever he can," said Paul Nace, another developer.

And perhaps nothing that McCourt does in private could soften his image in business, including the run-ins he has had with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and competitors who derisively refer to him as the "parking lot king."

With the South Boston development progressing slowly, rivals remark that McCourt's career has been limited to smaller projects and lofty plans that might look good on paper but have yet to be built.

They point to the late 1980s, when McCourt poured a reported $25 million into a waterfront entertainment site in Baltimore. It faltered and closed within a year.

Much of McCourt's wealth has come, instead, from haggling with the government, those who know him say.

When Boston embarked on its "Big Dig" project, creating a underground artery for traffic, the state needed construction access. McCourt reportedly negotiated deals that paid him approximately $90 million in compensation and brought him new properties in land swaps.

At the same time, he earned a reputation for being litigious, suing everyone from business associates to contractors who worked on his Brookline home.

As always, there seem to be opposing views on this. Kaplan, the attorney, noted: "He was generally right and he won."

Is there any reason to believe, after battling through contentious last-minute negotiations, McCourt can help a team that cites $40 million in annual losses and hasn't made the playoffs since 1996?

"Frank McCourt is feisty," Li says. "Do not underestimate him."

*

Staff writers Elizabeth Mehren and Bill Shaikin contributed to this report.

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