It's difficult to drive anywhere in Cornelius without seeing one of the business ventures backed by Art Sabates: Madison Village, The Blake House, Shops at the Green, the Board Room SkatePark.
Older brother Felix is prominent in the community as well, mostly for his sports ventures: he owned part of the Charlotte Hornets, helped bring the Checkers back to Charlotte and owns part of NASCAR's Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
Yet just a few decades ago, young Art and Felix had never visited the United States, much less Charlotte.
Born in Cuba, Art said his family lived in the city of Camaguey just before the Cuban revolution in 1959. Despite their privileged life, his parents made sure to instill the values of hard work and the importance of family.
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For instance, his father told him the story of his grandfather, whose sugar cane plantation burned down in the 1930s. Even though his grandfather had to start his professional life over, he made sure to pay back whomever he owed money first.
"That was pretty much the type of upbringing: to always do the right thing," Art said.
Quality of life quickly deteriorated for the Sabates family when Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista government, Art said.
Like many Cubans, the Sabates family originally supported Castro - at one point they even let his men stay on the family's farm for a night. Then, "slowly but surely, Castro's intent became a lot more apparent: socialism," Art said.
The Castro regime ended up splitting his family apart for years, he said.
When Art's father found out Felix was training with the anti-Castro movement in 1961, he sent Felix to live with relatives in Boston, fearing for his son's life if he stayed in Cuba, Art said.
Art's older sisters and older brother fled Cuba later that year as part of a program offered by the Roman Catholic Church, which feared Castro would teach atheism to the nation's children. Operation Peter Pan placed Cuban children in U.S. foster care. Although all of his siblings qualified, the 1-year-old Art was too young to go.
"That was a pretty painful situation," he said, adding that he didn't see his siblings again until 1963 when his mother and he came to the United States. His father would arrive last, in 1966.
After the family reunited in 1963 in a small N.C. town, they soon discovered that not everyone was excited about their escape from Cuba. When someone put a burning cross in their front yard, the Sabates family moved briefly to Charlotte before settling in Miami.
"We were on government assistance for maybe a year. We were glad when we got off of it. It was a matter of pride - we were just not built that way," he said. "My father taught me that work ethic, that you had to work. We didn't just want things to be given to us."
As his father gained a reputation as a trustworthy salesman and optometrist in south Florida, Art studied his interactions with customers, hoping to emulate him one day.
Art's big break came when his father asked him to run one of his optical stores after Art's cousins decided to leave the family business to open their own store, he said.
"That was a big deal with the family because it was really a betrayal," Art said. "All of a sudden this was my place, and I was going to prove to my cousin I could run it better than him. I wanted my father to be proud of me, and I wanted my mother to be proud of me."
In just a few months, Art said his store was the top seller in his family's business. That's when Art realized he had a knack for selling, he said. Soon, he began working in real estate with one of his sisters.
Art found considerable success in the south Florida real estate market between 1982 and 1985, especially on foreclosed properties. /.
But his father soon became concerned with the amount of wealth his 24-year-old son had acquired so quickly, Art said.
"He'd always thought that a young kid with money was trouble," said Art. "He told me, 'You have to respect money, and I'm fearful you're making too much money and you don't understand the responsibility of making money.'"
So when his brother Felix, who had moved to Charlotte as owner of Top Sales Company, offered him a job as a manufacturer's representative, his father insisted Art take it.
So Art relocated to Charlotte in 1985. Over the next several years, he produced more than $40 million in sales annually for Top Sales Company. In the 1990s, he began investing in several developments in the Cornelius area, including Shops at the Green.
A few years after Felix sold Top Sales Company in 2000, Art left the company to start Sabates Inc. in 2004. Today, the consumer retail products broker boasts several big-name clients, including Family Dollar stores and Snyder's-Lance Inc.
The youngest sibling in the Sabates family lives in a waterfront home in Cornelius, a community in which he's become a well-known businessman and philanthropist.
Most recently, Art backed out of a deal to donate a Cornelius skate park to the town because the town would have required all visitors of any age to wear elbow, knee and wrist pads because of insurance requirements.
Art has said the requirement would spell the end for the business.
Town officials and Art have said they regret the outcome of the transaction, but neither side has budged on their positions.
Regardless of the recent controversy surrounding the skate park, Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte said Art's legacy within the Lake Norman area continues to be one of a strong work ethic and an intuitive business sense.
"The whole family has an absolutely solid work ethic. They don't expect anyone to give anything to them, and they basically work their butt off," said Tarte. "Some people who get to that income level tend to go off and think about themselves, but not Art. He's been a very caring and charitable person in the community for decades."