(Second in a five-part series)
The brothers Clarke — Bill and Randy — were cheered as they went about changing the face of the City of St. John’s, one real estate project at a time, in the early 2000s.
They incorporated Myles-Legér in 1999, using their middle names to create the name of the business.
The plan was to use Bill’s real estate experience alongside Randy’s business acumen and seed money (purportedly from a successful turn in the tech industry) to create a new kind of real estate developer.
Myles-Legér proposed new builds and brought condominiums from novelty to accepted norm, while restoring failing properties.
“They did come in with a lot of what I considered to be good development proposals and … most of their developments were done by professional engineers and designers and whatnot,” said Art Cheeseman, retired now from his position as director of planning and engineering with the City of St. John’s.
“So from a technical perspective, there really wasn’t any issues I had.”
In a recent interview, he credited the company on its redevelopment projects.
He was not the only one.
When Myles-Legér brought forward a plan in 2002 to build a 23-unit condo building on the former McKinley Motors property on the corner of Lime Street and LeMarchant Road in St. John’s, ward councillor Frank Galgay publicly supported the concept, saying it would be an added attraction and new blood in the neighbourhood, “revitalizing the core of the old downtown.”
Contacted recently, the now former councillor Galgay said he could not recall anything related to Myles-Legér. He did not deal with the company directly, he said, noting city staff are responsible for dealing with developers. He said he did not remember having personally supported the company’s work.
Other former council members from the period when the company was seeking rezoning and permits from the city — namely former mayor Andy Wells and current mayor and then councillor Dennis O’Keefe — ultimately declined comment.
That is despite the fact that Wells, sources say, had heated exchanges with one of the Clarke brothers. As a matter of public record, he actively campaigned against a proposed development by Myles-Legér on the edge of the Bally Haly Golf and Curling Club property.
That project died on the vine. The property was later picked up by another St. John’s developer.
O’Keefe was on council when Myles-Legér was active and since becoming mayor, has overseen votes relating to new developments proposed by Bill Clarke. A spokeswoman for the city said the mayor would not take questions on his interactions with either of the businessmen at the helm of Myles-Legér.
A city staffer responsible for dealing with commercial and residential construction and permits also refused to comment specifically on Myles-Legér properties.
Of course, city staff and council were not the only ones to deal with the company and the Clarkes.
Myles-Legér gained a reputation for picking up prime real estate. Their development proposals often stirred public controversy as a result.
Before he was named the province’s consumer advocate, lawyer Tom Johnson lived directly beside a rundown apartment building on Patrick Street in St. John’s. That building was purchased by Myles-Legér.
There was an appetite in the neighbourhood for something to be done with the building, he recalled recently, and the company proposed turning it into a hotel property.
The plan was not well received by Johnson and other members of the Downtown West Neighbourhood Association — a group organized to advocate against the project and against swift “spot rezoning” by city hall for the benefit of developers.
Johnson said he was contacted directly by the brothers Clarke.
They stopped by his house for a cup of tea.
“I must say, I didn’t have a problem with them. I disagreed with them and they disagreed with me and we made it clear to each other — we didn’t mince words in that regard. But I can’t say that I was left with a bad impression,” he said.
The project on Patrick Street took a turn after a public meeting was held at city hall, attended by 50 to 60 people. The hotel was never realized, but the developers stuck with the site.
“As a matter of fact, it was interesting,” Johnson said, “because people said, why don’t you turn it into condominiums or refurbish the apartment buildings to make it nicer, attract higher rent, etc., and clean it up a bit, and they were saying no, no, no — that’s an absolute impossibility.
“And then, funny enough, when their proposal for the rezoning got turned down, what they did was precisely what they said they couldn’t do, was develop it into condominiums.”
Myles-Legér continued to grow from there — and fast.
“I sometimes shook my head and said I didn’t even know that property was available and next thing I knew they had it bought, you know?” said an experienced local developer, who spoke about Myles-Legér under condition of maintaining their anonymity.
“So they picked up some very valuable properties along the way.”
Within a year of its start, the company was drawing the attention of much larger, longer-standing players in the regional real estate and development world.
The attention was rooted in a mix of jealousy and curiosity.
“Every day I was driving around town and I was seeing these shiny new pickups and everybody and his dog who worked with the company had a new vehicle,” the same developer said.
“And I was saying to myself — how do you generate enough profit to pay for these vehicles? That was just one thing that jumped out at me.”
Generally, according to those who spoke to The Telegram, any sort of suspicions about the firm were fleeting, and set aside.
Myles-Legér’s books were signed off on by accountants. It was viewed as a local company doing well.
In 2002, the Clarkes’ rapid success was the focus of a cover story by Home Builder magazine, a national publication of the Canadian Home Builders Association. The cover declared the brothers: “Home town heroes.”
“Today Myles-Legér Ltd., which started in 1999 with the conversion of St. John’s apartments into quickly sold out condominiums, is one of the largest development companies in the province,” it stated.
“The company holds seven-and-a-half acres of prime downtown real estate and is developing four residential subdivisions. It also owns more than 50 high-end rental apartments and is the second largest cabinet manufacturer in Newfoundland.”
Jane Morgan of Nuport Holdings was president of the Eastern Newfoundland Home Builders’ Association at the time, now better known as the Canadian Home Builders Association — Newfoundland and Labrador. She was quoted in the magazine as saying the company faced with skeptics at its start, but no longer.
In a recent interview, she said the brothers were “lined up to be the big success story.”
“I didn’t do business with them. I never had an account with them, they never had an account with me. So all I was an outsider watching what I thought was a happy family story of two guys who I thought were going to make it big,” she said.
There was some talk of the brothers having been slow to pay certain bills, she added, but nothing that would be considered out of the ordinary with large construction and development work.
“And then somebody lifted the shell and there was nothing underneath,” she said.
The company sought protection from creditors in May 2004. By July 15, 2004, it was declared bankrupt.
“Nobody ever said to me, ‘I saw that coming,’” Morgan recalled.