Preston Harbor at 15 years
George Schuler is staying the course.
Schuler, the McKinney businessman behind the 3,162 acre development in northwest Denison, has kept his dream of “Preston Harbor” alive by working diligently to make it a reality; even if it doesn’t seem like much has happened since he first announced the project in 2002.
“It’s always been a 30 year plan,” said Schuler from his McKinney office in mid-January. “It takes a long time to develop that much land, but we are working hard to make it happen.”
After 15 years, it would seem to the average person that nothing has happened; there are no hotels, no golf courses, no residential housing, no medical office buildings or even one building on the property. Yet, the reality is that much has happened because Schuler started from the bottom with nothing except the land (and not even all of it to begin with).
All he had was a ‘Vision’ of what he wanted to do……………………………….
“I had about 1,600 acres when I announced Preston Harbor at the charrette,” explained Schuler. “Now, we are at double that. When I began this idea, I was told to do a major real estate development, you needed 1,000 acres. At that time, I only had about 600 acres, so when a tract adjacent came available, it put us over the top. It took a year to buy it, but then, the vision started to come together.”
Schuler had just less than 1,200 acres on the Preston Peninsula to fulfil that vision. He had already come a long way from his first purchase in 1999; those three years were the turning point.
“I began with about 300 acres on the lake (Lake Texoma),” recalled Schuler. “I’ve always loved the lake since I first saw it in 1969; I’ve always had an affinity for Lake Texoma. Over time, that developed into my vision.”
Schuler has never wavered from his Vision even though it may appear that nothing is happening on that west side of the peninsula bordered by FM 84 and FM 406, northwest of Denison.
It has taken 15 years just to get to the point where some construction work and real estate projects can begin. And Schuler is quick to point out that nothing is pending right now, but the development team is poised to act when the right project materializes.
“We have put the seeds in the ground and hopefully, in the next five years, there will be activity,” Schuler cautiously noted. “But market forces will dictate that activity; we are not just going to do something for the sake of doing it.”
“We are going to only do the projects that fits our vision and makes economic sense for everyone,” continued Schuler. “There are many uses for this land; we want the ultimate flexibility to do what’s right.”
Ideas have been batted around by Schuler and others over the years including a resort hotel, an aged targeted component (the ‘Senior Wellness’ concept), retail sites, medical office buildings, single family homes and possibly a golf course, miles of hiking trails and maybe a yacht club.
“But golf courses have run a cycle since we began this idea, so a hotel may or may not require a golf course,” explained Schuler. “We will do what needs to be done to get a great project going.”
The logical first point might be a hotel – and Schuler has been told by industry officials that it takes about four years to build a hotel, so that is a consideration.
“There may or may not be a hotel in the development,” added Schuler. “If there is one, it may set in motion other projects. The land isn’t any less usable if there is no hotel. We are working with market analysts and land use specialists to do the best and right thing for the site.”
Schuler freely admits that it ‘feels great’ to have everything that has been done to this point finished. He also admits when it started 15 years ago, he didn’t have any idea aspects of the project would take so long. Schuler and his team have had to be creative at times; and to be patient at other times while within rules and regulations concerning such a development.
“Following the rules have been time consuming; and just haven’t gone as quickly as we would have liked,” he smiled. “But now, we have something teed up and ready to go.”
The key to the Preston Harbor development was and always has been ‘lake access’ as in Lake Texoma access—something Schuler didn’t have when he began the project. That ‘access’ was owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers, which included 635 acres of mostly shoreline that bordered Schuler’s land with the lake. Schuler had the land for all sorts of development, but no way for anyone to get to – or get into - Lake Texoma from it.
Welcome, huge problem number one…………………………….
“We had to bring the water ‘closer to the highway’,” explained Schuler. “In order to get the ‘on the ground’ stuff done. We began our market research, but we had to find a way to get the lake access.”
This was early on when Schuler built Lake Gayle and Lake Lightbourne (2005) in anticipation of the necessary accoutrements for construction, i.e. sewer and water facilities. Still, getting those 635 acres was proving difficult at best.
“We originally thought that we could lease the Corps land and have lake access that way, but that didn’t work,” recalled Schuler. “Then, I heard about the Water Resources Development Act of 2005 where Oklahoma got lake access. I thought that this would be a way for us to do it.”
But, of course, it would take an act of Congress…………………………
The WRDA is routinely done in Congress – every two years or so—a new version is passed, so it was in 2008; this put Preston Harbor from ‘Vision’ status to reality status. But then, came the real estate crash of 2008 and 2009…………………………….and no one wanted to do anything in any development anywhere.
“We had no choice but to bide our time, so we worked on planning at the site and worked with the city of Denison,” said Schuler. “The city has been great to work with in all of this.”
According to Schuler, the WRDA allows the federal government (the Corps in this case) to sell land to local municipalities such as a city (Denison in this case), which can in turn sell it to an individual (Schuler in this case). Other considerations include an ‘In City Municipal Utility District (MUD)’ and a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, done in 2009 and 2011, respectively.
Denison officials are optimistic about the development; they know what it will mean when complete.
“It’s a really big opportunity for Denison’s future,” said Jared Johnson, Denison’s mayor. “For us to have a lake side development within the city limits is significant.”
Johnson added that the development will do two major things for the city: add a future tax base and attract more people to Denison.
“The market will drive the development; we know that and we are working with George and his staff,” said Johnson. “The city stands ready to help when the time comes. We are excited for Preston Harbor when it happens.”
Even though the sale of the land to the city of Denison and ultimately, to Schuler happened in March 2013, the journey to that date was long and complicated. Once the WRDA was passed in 2008, an Environmental Impact Study had to be done – at first on the shoreline bordering the development and later, on the entire Lake Texoma itself. The EIS authorized various studies including private land study, a Lake Texoma study, a state historical preservation study and an insect study among others.
“There was a litany list of things; all part of the process. We had to work through it before any land could be conveyed at all,” recounted Schuler. “It took years and years, but with the help of (former Congressman) Ralph Hall, we did it.”
The WRDA allowed for the city and Schuler to make the deal for the 635 acres of lake access; and it was done with no ‘net loss’ to the city, according to Schuler. The project land was annexed into Denison at the same time and finally, the development could move forward.
Or so everyone thought……………………………………..
It’s been almost four years since the Corps land was conveyed, but the project has been under federal scrutiny and further requirements. Schuler has to put in two new ‘safety’ lakes on the property in case of a water event, which would ensure the ‘protection’ of Lake Texoma. This also allows for sewer services for the entire development acreage.
“It’s taken two and a half years to permit these lakes,” explained Schuler. “And we can’t even apply to TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) until the lakes are done; we have to do that to get the lift station and sewers.”
According to Schuler, the summer of 2017 will be spent constructing the lakes; and dams will be installed in the fall. Spring 2018 rains should fill the lakes as previous rains did for the initial two lakes on the property, he added.
“In all of this, we have had a great relationship with the Lake,” noted Schuler. “Joe Custer (Lake Texoma manager) has been wonderful to work with. It has been a positive experience for all of us.”
Schuler and his team are not ones to sit around and wait on the rains to fill the lakes either. At the same time, they will apply to TCEQ for that permit, a process which takes about six months. They are doing erosion control at sites all around the property to protect the development and Lake Texoma. These items should take about 18 months, he added.
Even with all the stops and starts, the paperwork and studies, Schuler is upbeat about his ‘Vision’ and Preston Harbor. He noted that his close knit family company has been the foundation of all he has done. He listed daughter, Cindy Schuler North, who acts as legal counsel; his son, Kevin; and family friend, Kelly Cannell, who is company president and has a background in accounting.
“Everyone has put in long hours to make this a reality,” said a proud Schuler. “We could have easily chosen to split it up over the years and sell parts of it (the development), but we have chosen to keep it together because we know we have a special unique property. We don’t want to mess that up.”
North noted everything that is done with the Preston Harbor development is part of a ‘thoughtful’ process; and the family can afford to do the project in the long haul. She added that developments such as Preston Harbor are ‘corporatized’ now; and real estate companies want to do shorter projects because of increased and immediate cash flow.
“We aren’t in a hurry to throw it together immediately,” she said. “We want to do it right. The good news is that we can act quickly when the opportunity strikes. We are ready.”
Schuler agreed and noted that his vision of a ‘great place to go’ (Lake Texoma) can be made to be better with the right development and projects. He is excited for the next phase of what’s going to happen in the newest part of Denison.
“Now, all the bureaucratic and environmental work is done,” said Schuler. “The heavy lifting is now done; and we are ready for the next step. All we need are partners to begin.”
“It’s fun to have a project that you love,” he concluded. “And to further it for other people.”
According to Johnson, the finished development has the potential to add 10,000 people to the population of Denison.
“Preston Harbor will make a huge impact on our city and government,” he said. “We are looking forward to it.”