Following is first in a series of occasional features focused on the legendary pasts of local communities, taken from South County community archives and the personal recollections of those who lived it. This week: Apollo Beach In Retrospect.
Fraudulent practices. Grandiose inflation of values. Multiple misrepresentations to regulators and to the public.
|Unspoiled vistas of Tampa Bay, miles of broad white sand beach, rolling surf — all of these were promised prospective buyers when they visited Apollo Beach 45 years ago. This idyllic scene was used in promotional materials distributed by Flora Sun Corporation, an early developer whose over-the-top practices led to charges of fraud. It seems unlikely this photograph actually reflects Apollo Beach in 1959 but some of the first residents believe it does, indeed, illustrate the new beach at the mid-20th century mark. ( From the Ruth Arthur Collection, Apollo Beach Memorabilia)|
Shades of those fast and loose days in the 1990s! It sounds like Enron Corporation or maybe WorldCom or perhaps Tyco International; bullet points in a story of big money disappearing into who knows whose pocket.
And, to a degree, it is. But this flim flam was a lot closer to home and preceded those world-class deceptions by a good 30 years.
It almost but not quite doomed Apollo Beach, once a gleam in the eyes of several key men given to thinking big, risking big, and today a bustling community wondering if it can become a full-fledged city.
Certainly, it was not the first of its kind in Florida’s long, sometimes painful, usually colorful chronicle of major league real estate transactions. There was plenty of precedent to learn from for those in the "fabulous fifties" who aspired to riches and dreamed large, if not ethically. And, just as in the ‘90s, the manipulations ultimately would sink some would-be big timers as well as wring out many on the bottom rung.
What’s more, the knotty legal tangle emerging when the slights of hand came to light gave a couple of courts here and in Miami plenty of complex questions to consider. The young development would come to flounder in foreclosure, touched by receivership, its multi-headed developer under bankruptcy protections. Before the early tribulations were over, the site would revert to former owners, not once, but twice.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
By the late ‘50s, the 5,500 acres, more or less, that was destined to become a waterfront development attracting boaters of every stripe, had been held by the pioneering Dickman family for a few decades, their concept of choice being a future small city. In the span of about three years, the acreage would get three different monikers as it passed to as many owners.
Mid-decade, Dickmans first sold the marshy acreage on the eastern shore of Tampa Bay to three enterprising investors known locally as Turner, Dean and Clark, according to newspaper reports. The New York trio dubbed their swampy acquisition Tampa Beach.
But a suburb of the county seat to the northwest it was not. Home to an abundance of alligators and snakes, mosquitoes and pond birds, located in a strictly rural environment, lacking ready access to heavy equipment and adventurous personnel to run it, the land did not give way easily as the New Yorkers determinedly tried to dig the Flamingo canal from the Tamiami Trail to the bay.
It wasn’t long before Turner, Dean and Clark wanted out, apparently asking Dickmans to take back the land. And, in late 1956, the property reverted to their control.
About a year later, a Michigan retiree, formerly engaged in shopping center development and then living on Florida’s East Coast, learned of the aborted West Coast project from a real estate salesman. For the second time, Dickmans sold; this time to Francis Corr who promptly renamed the acreage La Vida (the life) Beach, and in short order, was pushing the canal westward.
The area hummed with activity as Corr set up a sales office near the Flamingo/U.S. 41 intersection and began construction of some 50 homes between what now is Golf and Sea Boulevard and the highway. Taking a page from Fort Lauderdale, the prevailing concept was a large development of waterfront homes on dredged up bay bottom bordering dozens of finger canals, all with access to Tampa Bay.
Before 1960 turned up on the calendar, two more changes transpired that would impact the future community. Corr apparently figured marketing would benefit from another name change and his health became a concern. The fledgling development became Apollo Beach, the better to evoke images of the God of the Sun, and Corr cast about for a buyer to continue the project.
Enter Flora Sun Corporation, recently recalled Ruth Arthur, now a Sun City Center resident and former Flora Sun employee. The deal was sketched out on a cocktail napkin in a Davis Islands restaurant where Corr and William Cahn, principal in Miami-based Flora Sun, shared a meal, Arthur said. It was another beginning both for the would-be upscale community and for Arthur, a single mother of two young children when she joined Flora Sun at AB as an office assistant in 1959.
Seeds of Setback Sowed
Flora Sun Corporation, driven by Cahn who is remembered as an irrepressibly positive visionary, and Wilbur Jones, a one-time Florida political figure, proceeded with the plan. In fact, Cahn apparently had no difficulty forecasting a number of elaborate, luxurious amenities for the community-in-progress. Within months, streets were paved, houses were going up, the water tower was built, the Jamaica Yacht Club was underway, a small shopping center was taking shape and a newspaper was established.
Cahn was the kind of man who could make most people believe nearly anything could be accomplished, Arthur said. She remembers him as an energetic, free-wheeling thinker convinced there’s always a way when there’s willingness to forge ahead.
And forge ahead Cahn did, Flora Sun flew prospective buyers from across the country to Florida’s Central Gulf Coast, setting them down on an airstrip carved from the current AB golf course, said Arthur, who eventually married a company pilot. Prospects would be shown glossy brochures detailing their potential waterside castle, treated to elaborate descriptions of classy amenities to come, and vigorously encouraged to sign what Flora Sun titled a "Contract for Warranty Deed."
The contract, which essentially covered purchase of a home or commercial site for a mutually agreed upon price at six percent interest and called for construction in a specified timeframe, promised among several pledges that "Private beaches will be maintained exclusively for Apollo Beach property owners.."
Cahn seemingly also was a master of the "Robbing Peter to pay Paul" theory, creating dozens of inter-connected companies to handle various aspects of the Flora Sun real estate business. At noon, one weekday, the office crew, including Cahn, was piling into a car, preparing to lunch together, Arthur recalled. The topic of discussion as they drove to a local eatery, she said, was coining yet another name for yet another subsidiary company Cahn was setting up. She could not know that sunny Florida noon hour that the anecdote would become particularly pertinent in the days ahead.
Clouds began to gather within the first year, threatening the Flora Sun vision, investor capital and buyer dreams of life on warm waters. Seven months after he’d left Apollo Beach in Bill Cahn’s hands, Corr was several months short of payments due from Flora Sun. Corr foreclosed, his attorneys filing the action in a Hillsborough County Court.
|One of the first – if not the first - luxury houses built in Apollo Beach was this sprawling ranch on the northwest corner of Flamingo and Fairway. Initially known as “the company house,” it included a caged swimming pool at the rear, a two-car carport and sweeping circular drive, the latter for company Cadillacs. Francis Corr built the home in the late ‘50s and his family sometimes stayed in it while he owned the development. It also was used by both Bill Cahn and Wilbur Jones, principals in Flora Sun, the developer later charged with fraudulent practices. The house today is a private residence. |
Litigation Plays Out
According to newspaper accounts at the time, Corr’s foreclosure action named some 3,500 defendants - not only the debtor, Flora Sun, and its principals, but also banks, investors and individual buyers were wrapped into the action. The many facets of the case made it the largest of its kind in Florida up to that time.
Boiled down, eventual litigation accused Cahn of manufacturing a complex financial and legal network that produced "a series of indefensible breaches of trust" related to obtaining and overseeing investors’ monies. The network, composed of various companies with numerous wholly owned subsidiaries – and all influenced one way or another by Cahn, - included a mortgage company, an investment firm and a bonding enterprise, along with the development arm.
When the Florida Securities Commission got into the fray, Cahn and colleagues stood accused of, among other things, selling $4 million in mortgages that did not meet legal standards because no homes existed on the properties, of representing that funds were insured against loss by a fidelity bond which did not exist and of assuring investors that mortgages were secured by the state’s mortgage guarantee insurance act when there was no such security.
And as the wheels of justice slowly were turning, the community was paying a price. No funds were being invested in upgrading infrastructure. Hillsborough County began talking about taking over the water and sewer systems. The subdivision was not perceived as an "up and coming place" to live. What was perceived was an odor of decay and neglect.
For more than five ensuing years – until 1965 – the complicated litigation was pursued. From foreclosure to bankruptcy to receivership and on it went. With one aspect pending in Hillsborough, other aspects were ongoing in Dade courts and ultimately in the U.S. District Court of Judge Emett Choate in Miami.
Finally, on October 1, 1965, Judge Choate affirmed the foreclosure sale of Apollo Beach and, for the second time in its history, the site went back to a former owner.
Subsequent newspaper accounts indicate that Cahn was convicted on several counts, along with others in the multiple organizations he had created. He, along with six former colleagues, were jailed. But the money so cleverly misappropriated from so many believers in Apollo Beach – reported to be in the $8 million neighborhood – was not recovered. Published accounts of the era estimated that hundreds of people had millions of dollars at stake.
Taking charge again in mid October, ’65, Corr soon formed Frandorson Management, Inc., taking letters from his given name, from the name of his wife, Dorothy, and adding "son" for their offspring Tom Corr, Arthur said, in the same way that an early pioneer of Wimauma designated that community with letters from feminine names in his family. When Francis Corr’s time would run out, Tom would take the Frandorson helm.
And, by ’67, things were moving again. Apollo Beach Boulevard from U.S. 41 to the bayfront was on the drawing boards, Frandorson succeeded in getting a Holiday Inn franchise for a beach setting and new builders were poised to chart new ground with names such as Bal Harbour and Sabal Key.
Apollo Beach had endured, surviving several reversals of fortune, and, just as Paul Dickman, and Francis Corr and even corner-cutting Bill Cahn envisioned in the last century, has progressed, grown and shown.
The Observer News welcomes information about South County communities suited to retrospective treatment and is interested in any documents related to their pasts. Contact Melody Jameson via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .