Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2005 | 8:47 a.m.
School wasn't Sam Cherry's thing, but luckily for downtown Las Vegas, building is -- knock on wood.
While 46 residential projects have been approved or proposed for downtown and the immediate area, Cherry's Soho Lofts is the only one already piercing the skyline, with the condominiums' owners expected to start living there in January.
His second downtown condominium high rise, the taller Newport Lofts, is rising from the ground, and plans for a third and even taller luxury condo skyscraper are scheduled to go to the Las Vegas City Council on Wednesday for final city approval.
Perhaps no one has taken to Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman's vision of downtown as a skyscraper-filled metropolis, made it his own and run with it as much as Cherry, who is likely to have two high rises completed downtown before anyone else has one.
Cherry and his primary investor, Harris Rittoff, his father-in-law, say they saw Las Vegas following the path of other major cities where, after decades of pushing the edges of development away from the city's core, development returned to the center and went vertical.
The downtown trend toward high-rise development probably would have come eventually even without Cherry's projects. But it may have taken longer, judging by the skepticism when he started Soho.
Even Goodman, the loudest cheerleader for downtown development, questioned whether people would pay so much for a condo in a 16-story building at Las Vegas Boulevard and Hoover Avenue, just north of Charleston Boulevard.
"I thought it was overly ambitious, lofts starting at $329,000. But now that's a bargain," Goodman said. Soho condominiums ended up selling from $379,000 to $2.7 million for one of the penthouses.
Cherry's success with Soho -- he has cash deposits in the tens of thousands on all but three of the 120 units in the building -- has convincingly shown that there is a market for expensive condos downtown.
"He was the first guy who bought into what he called my vision," Goodman said. "But without him the success that we've had there wouldn't be happening. You look at the skyline and see Soho and that it's a vibrant place for residential.
"It always takes the first guy to make it happen. I was the visionary. He was the doer."
Brian Gordon, a partner in the economics and real estate research firm Applied Analysis, said Cherry and his Soho project "opened the eyes of other developers" to the viability of the downtown residential high-rise market.
"They've seen a project that takes the risk and is succeeding," Gordon said.
Not bad for a superstitious 27-year-old high school dropout, whose knocks on wood punctuate his speech so often one would think he's wearing out his knuckles.
But maybe not so surprising for someone who bought his first business at 15; has been buying and selling real estate in Las Vegas since he turned 18; pulls all-nighters tweaking plans for his projects -- and must know something about the power of knocking on wood most of us don't.
"I get two or three hours of sleep when I'm doing good," Cherry said.
Cherry moved to Henderson when he was 13, a time when "golf was my life," he said. He was good enough to consider playing professionally, and usually had pockets full of cash from caddying and playing skins games, in which golfers gamble on who will win each hole.
At 15, Cherry used $3,600 he had saved from his golf exploits to buy a vending machine business from a senior at Green Valley High School. For the next year and a half, his mother drove him around to the offices and car dealerships where his machines were so he could refill the sodas and snacks.
He started with 14 machines, and had 22 when he sold it at 16, having doubled his money. He used the $7,400 he got for the business to buy a pickup truck.
Then, as a high school junior, Cherry dropped out and turned to the working world full time. Understandably, his parents weren't happy, and Cherry tried briefly to return to school, but again decided that a high school diploma was not critical to the future he had charted for himself.
"School just wasn't my thing," Cherry said. "Figuring out ways to work and make money was."
Cherry had been working for Rittoff since he was 15, picking up golf balls at Rittoff's Green Valley Golf Range, a 24-hour driving range in Henderson.
As Rittoff developed the land around the range, building a restaurant, gas station, and offices at Adobe Plaza, and then turned the golf range into the Adobe Ranch Apartments, Cherry was there. He invested as much money as he could into Rittoff's projects, and attended as many of Rittoff's meetings as he could.
Cherry also was busy outside of his work for Rittoff. He began making real estate investments at an age when most teens are thinking more about prom dates than about mortgage rates.
"As soon as I turned 18 I started buying properties," Cherry said.
His first properties were small condominiums in the northwest, which he bought, fixed up and leased or sold.
He also started, with partners, a real estate firm and a land-holding company. By 22, he had more than $1 million in assets. Although Cherry is reluctant to talk about his financial standing, he concedes that by the end of 2003 he was very comfortable financially and "knew I had enough to be happy." Last month, he paid just under $2.8 million for a home in Henderson's Seven Hills community.
At 23, Cherry added a mortgage company to his workload. "I was trying to learn every facet of the business," he said.
His age was never really an issue, he said. "When you sit down with the banks, they can tell pretty quickly if you know what you're talking about," he said.
Rittoff added: "Sammy is very smart, so when you talk to him that boyish look goes away pretty fast."
Rittoff, a jovial man with a vise-like handshake who at 71 still refers to himself as "just a paver from Chicago," forms strong bonds with his employees, whom he prefers to refer to as co-workers.
Although he owned a paving business in Chicago for years, Rittoff made most of his money as a developer there and here, he said.
Rittoff still splits his time between Las Vegas and Michiana, Mich., where he is a former councilman and still sits on the city's planning commission.
Over the years, Cherry and Rittoff developed a strong father-son-like bond. Cherry, who remains close with his own parents, even lived in Rittoff's Las Vegas home for several years in his early 20s, something not uncommon for Rittoff, who has opened his home to several friends-employees over the years.
At the time, Rittoff's daughter and Cherry's future wife -- they've been married for about a year -- was living in Chicago and New York.
In 2001, a 23-year-old Cherry also was eyeing downtown Las Vegas, but said the "stars weren't aligned yet." Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"The whole world shut down," said Cherry, who headed to Israel, where he spent six weeks working on tanks for the Israeli army. He had planned to go to the Middle East before the terrorist attacks, saying he respected those who perform military service, but did not have four years to spend in an army.
"And being Jewish, it's always good to go to Israel," he said.
Upon his return, Cherry immediately set his sights again on downtown, spending about a year looking for the right spot to build a residential high rise.
Around March 2003, Cherry brought Rittoff downtown to sell him on the idea.
"Sammy calls me and says we should build loft high rises in downtown Las Vegas," Rittoff said. "He said the mayor's hot on it, the city's hot on it, everybody's hot on it."
"So, about 8 p.m. we drove down Fourth Street and I could just see it. Lawyers were turning old homes into offices and things were happening. There was just one thing lacking. You needed people."
Rittoff had seen parts of Chicago and Miami Beach, Fla., go through similar transformations, from downtrodden to tony, and believed downtown Las Vegas would do the same.
"I said 'go ahead, whatever it takes,' " Rittoff said. "I've been hard on money my whole life, and it starts with cojones, you've got to be willing to take the risk."
In the end, "whatever it takes" turned out to be $13 million. Rittoff, though, scoffs at the idea that any family, or future family, connections played a part in his decision.
Cherry was dating Rittoff's daughter, "but they weren't even engaged," he said.
"I'm hard on my money, and I'm a nice guy, but my daughter or not -- I did it because I believed with all my heart in the project and I believed in Sammy. And he proved me right," Rittoff said.
"And now we weren't just in on the ground floor," Rittoff said about building residential high rises in downtown. "We were in on the basement."
Like Rittoff, Cherry has surrounded himself with longtime friends in his business ventures.
At the top of Cherry Development are Cherry and three friends he had known since he was 14, who are now the company's chief financial officer, lawyer and the head of marketing and sales.
Grant Garcia, Cherry's executive vice president over marketing and sales, left a career as a financial adviser and stockbroker to work with his old friends.
"School just wasn't for him," Garcia said of Cherry. "His thing was hard knocks and learning it for himself."
With Soho only months away from occupancy, Cherry is focused on his next two projects.
Newport Lofts, a 23-story, 168-unit building at 200 Hoover Ave., a project in which Cherry has partnered with landowners Seegmiller Partners, could open by January 2007. It is to be followed by the proposed 65-story,425-luxury condo Stanhi building, which would go on the same block as Newport, at Gass Avenue and Third Street. Construction could start as early as next summer, with the building opening two years later, Garcia said.
Land costs for the three projects demonstrate the rising land prices that have swept over downtown. Soho's 0.69-acre site cost $1.2 million in January 2004. Roughly 20 months later, a 0.25-acre piece of the land needed for Stanhi cost $1.7 million.
When finished, all three buildings will be within a three-block area, which Cherry said will become a village of sorts within downtown.
"We'll have more than 700 people living here," Cherry said.
"I don't think people realize the magnitude of what's going on. We're making history. In 50 years, people will say this is where downtown began its renaissance."
But while Cherry might be ahead of the curve, many others are planning to join the fray.
Of the 46 residential projects approved or proposed for the greater downtown area, 11, including Cherry's three, are skyline-altering residential high rises north of Charleston Boulevard in the core of downtown.
Jimmy Foster heads sales and marketing for the planned 61-story Club Renaissance that will include office space and 912 condominiums just north of Newport and Stanhi at Casino Center Boulevard and Bonneville Avenue.
"Sam was and is a great pioneer," Foster said. "Downtown was a natural next step for development. But by Sam taking that chance, he showed that there were real buyers out there."
Dan Kulin can be reached at 259-8826 or at [email protected]