Ghazi remains undeterred

When Afshin Ghazi moved to Charlotte in 1994, fresh out of college and full of big ideas, a prominent developer asked what he was doing here, he recalls.

Ghazi answered that he wanted a piece of the real estate action. The developer, whom Ghazi declined to name, laughed and said, “Well, son, you're about 15 years too late.”

Today, at 37, Ghazi is the driving force behind the EpiCentre, one of Charlotte's highest-profile developments.

The $180 million project, at the corner of College and Trade streets, is changing the face of uptown. It also has put Ghazi's company in the realm of elite developers like Crosland, Lincoln Harris and Childress Klein.

Few could have predicted Ghazi's rise when he arrived with little more than a dog, a motorcycle and a passion for real estate.

“I'm the eternal optimist,” Ghazi says now, leaning back in a chair in his sunlit office, a century-old white house on Fairview Road. “My entire career, I've had naysayers. I guess you could say, in a way, I thrive on that.”

Colleagues, competitors and local officials say they appreciate Ghazi's boldness, a quality that initially had some doubting his staying power. He was bullish on Charlotte when some others were more cautious.

“If you want to see something done, go tell Afshin Ghazi it can't be done,” said condo developer David Furman of Centro CityWorks. “I've always admired his spirit, his independence.”

Problems at EpiCentre

Yet three years after Ghazi broke ground for the EpiCentre, the project has hit a significant snag.

The EpiCentre was envisioned to include an entertainment complex, a 175-room hotel and a luxury condo tower. The tower, 48 stories, was designed to be one of the city's tallest buildings.

But work on the tower stopped in February, with two floors built. Its developer, a subsidiary of Indianapolis-based Flaherty & Collins Properties, filed a lawsuit last month against Ghazi's company. The developer alleged that Ghazi and his investors failed to meet contractual agreements and refused to cooperate with local and state requirements that would allow the condo construction to move forward.

Ghazi's company filed its own suit, alleging that Flaherty & Collins stopped construction because it was unable to get financing in the floundering condo market, not for the reasons stated in the company's lawsuit.

A lawyer for Flaherty & Collins on Thursday said the company remains committed to the project and has lenders interested in funding it.

Ghazi said he hopes the condos are built, partly because he and his family and friends have bought “a bunch” of them in advance.

“I've never sued anybody in my whole life,” he said. “The thought never crossed my mind. Unfortunately, it's a dirty part of business when somebody tries to harm you.”

The rest of the EpiCentre is moving forward. Its first bars, Suite, Whisky River, Howl at the Moon and Pavilion, regularly draw 4,000 people on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, Ghazi said.

The aloft hotel is on schedule to open in October or November.

“Do we like the fact that part of the project has been stalled? Certainly not,” said Ben Brunt of Noble Investment Group, the Atlanta-based hotel developer. “But we're committed to the project, and we're going to go ahead with it.”

City officials say they still support Ghazi and his EpiCentre vision. The project, they say, has strengthened Charlotte's appeal.

“Afshin is someone who's … been willing to make investments where others have taken a pass,” said Tom Flynn, Charlotte's economic development director.

Balancing life

Ghazi, who came to the United States when he was five, has an athletic build and a nearly bald head. His speech is deliberate, especially when fielding topics he'd rather avoid.

He declined to confirm the country where he was born. He has gotten threats, he said.

Or his marital status: divorced.

Or some things relating to his income, wealth or private life: He owns a home with a tax value of $1.7 million in one of the city's affluent neighborhoods.

He arrived at his office for a recent interview astride a black Ducati motorcycle, dressed casually in shorts and loafers. He showed up at a job site a few days later in a silver Range Rover, his German Shepherds, Inka and Quest, crowded in back.

His greatest challenge, he says, is balancing life. He splits his time between work and hobbies, from soccer to travel to skydiving.

Like many who came before him, Ghazi was attracted to Charlotte's booming economy and can-do business climate. He used a $10,000 graduation gift from his mother as a down payment on a duplex in southeast Charlotte.

He gutted it, fixed it up and rented half to cover the mortgage. He sold the duplex about 21/2 years later for nearly $90,000 more than he paid for it.

The first business he owned was a small hair salon franchise, Hair Xperts, in Weddington. He opened 10 credit cards in one day to establish a $65,000 line of credit and pay the $7,500 franchise fee, he says. A short time later, he was using profits from the salon to launch his real estate business, The Ghazi Company.

In the beginning, he earned a living by flipping houses – buying them, fixing them up and selling them for a profit.

With every cash windfall, he would pay off debt, take 10 percent and “blow it” and reinvest the rest. His goal was to double his profits every year, and he did, he said.

Ghazi's first commercial investment was a two-acre tract on N.C. 51 near Johnston Road. It was, at the time, his biggest bet, costing “multiple times” more than anything else he had done, he said.

Ghazi wanted the site for an Italian restaurant, a knockoff of Macaroni Grill. He recruited a general manager from Kentucky and entered a partnership with Harper's Restaurant Group.

But John Collett of Harper's favored a different location and suggested Ghazi sell the land or use it for another purpose. So Ghazi developed a plan for the land, worked out a lease with a Japanese steakhouse and a bagel shop – which would later become a Starbucks – then sold the plan and the land to an investor, he said.

While the land didn't turn into the deal Ghazi expected, it propelled him into commercial real estate, he said.

“Call it fate, call it destiny, call it dumb luck,” he said. “But it definitely wasn't intentional.”

Ghazi went on to develop a series of suburban shopping centers, including Harbor Point Village, a commercial-and-condo complex on Lake Norman, and ParkTowne Village, a retail development at Park and Woodlawn roads.

It wasn't always easy. Collett, for instance, kept asking Ghazi to bring him ideas – “and every deal I took him, he shot me down on,” Ghazi said. “In his mind, the deals were too far out of the box.”

Another time, he entered a difficult partnership with an attorney-and-CPA-turned developer and learned quickly that “a bad partner is worse than having a bad wife.”

Some challenges turned into opportunities. Developer George Cornelson, upon hearing that others had turned Ghazi down several times, told Ghazi to bring his next deal to him, Cornelson said.

While some of Ghazi's ideas, such as unanchored retail, were unconventional, Cornelson had seen them work in other cities, he said.

Their first joint venture was in the late 1990s, a $2.1 million, three-story office building at Park and Woodlawn roads. They leased the space and made a $2 million profit.

They used the money to buy a site in University City, where they developed Grand Promenade Village, a mixed-use shopping center, Cornelson said.

The developers have since worked together on a string of successful projects, including the EpiCentre.

‘A serious gut check'

Making the leap from mid-size developments to one of uptown's most buzzed-about projects required “a serious gut check,” Ghazi said.

The EpiCentre is rising on a site where the old convention center once sat. Ghazi bought the land from Bank of America and Wachovia in 2004. He paid $15.5 million. The banks had acquired it from the city as part of the Bobcats arena deal.

The site had been abandoned for years as proposals from other developers failed to materialize.

But Ghazi had a hunch, he said. He didn't know what a development there might look like, but he knew the uptown market was calling for entertainment and retail and that the residential boom was just beginning.

He also knew something needed to happen along College Street, back then the “butt of uptown,” he said.

Ghazi started the project in a 50-50 partnership with Spectrum Properties, which later opted out.

His original vision was a three-story retail building. After Spectrum passed on the project, Ghazi brought the site to Cornelson, who quickly signed on.

“I was like, ‘Wow!'” Cornelson said, recalling his reaction to the EpiCentre concept. “We had a month to come up with 15 million bucks. I said, ‘That's right up my alley,' and got my checkbook out.”

Ghazi obtained financing from Regions Bank, according to public records, worked out an agreement with the city and county to demolish the convention center and got a $6.5 million pledge from local officials for infrastructure improvements and other work.

In July 2005, Ghazi and Flaherty & Collins closed on a deal for the condo tower, to be called 210 Trade.

Not everything Ghazi touched has been golden. A $650 million mixed-use project he planned for St. Louis' Bottle District fell through in 2006. His contract with the landowner expired before he could close on the property, and the owner was unwilling to extend it, he told a newspaper at the time.

In addition, the sluggish economy has forced Ghazi to postpone work on a 10-story condo building planned for Fairview Road near SouthPark, he told the Observer this spring. He says the project will move forward.

The EpiCentre, meanwhile, has been a catalyst for other development, Ghazi said. A light rail station and basketball arena have sprung up within walking distance. A Ritz Carlton is planned for across the street. And other projects are in the works around the site.

“I think it goes back to timing, vision, hard work, taking risks and capitalizing on opportunities,” Ghazi said. “I couldn't have predicted that all this would happen. … But could I have predicted that this would be catalytical? Yes.”

Despite an economic downturn, Ghazi is confident that Charlotte – boosted by its bustling airport and quality of life – can support new development.

“This business comes in cycles, and it ebbs and flows,” he said. “If I look at the market, I think the next 20 years are going to be more magnificent than the last 30.”

As for the developer who told him in 1994 that he had missed Charlotte's prime? Ghazi reminds him of that statement whenever he can.

Staff researcher Maria Wygand contributed.