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Golfing great Hal Sutton found himself in the Texas Hill Country about 12 years ago, with a stop in Fredericksburg. He might have thought he was in Tuscany, not Texas, because the terrain was so similar he wondered where the olive trees were. The idyllic German-esque community of about 11,000 in Gillespie County rests about 70 miles west of Austin and 52 miles north of San Antonio. Fredericksburg, famous for its summer peaches and German brews, caught Sutton’s heart and never really let go.

But it got his brain busy calculating, dreaming.

“This is beautiful,” the 14-time winner on the PGA tour told his wife, “This is the Aspen of Texas! We need to buy something here, build something here. Once the rest of the world discovers how beautiful this place is, it will just take off!”

I relate to that feeling totally. Whenever I drove my son to camp in Hunt, Texas, for years back in the 1990’s, I too fell in love with Fredericksburg and the gentle hills surrounding it. It is the perfect primary, second or vacation home location — drive-able from most major Texas urban areas, scenic, hilly, and loaded with activity. There is water: Lake LBJ and the Guadalupe and Pedernales Rivers, and there is land: mountain climbing at Enchanted Rock, horseback riding, endless hours of hiking.

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Hal Sutton did more than just dream. He built the best exclusive family golf community in Texas, Boot Ranch. Armed with a $30 million investment from his partner, the Louisiana Municipal Police Employees Retirement System (Hal is from Shreveport), his own funds, and a network of good friends, he created the perfect ranch for city slickers looking for a getaway on the range laced with golf, gourmet food, and guns. He chose a beautiful spread of 2050 acres with the Palo Alto Creek winding through about five miles north of Fredericksburg, on the road to Llano. In case you don’t know, this is the hilly neck of Texas where most big time billionaires play rancher — Kelcy Warren, Tav Lupton, David Bamberger of Church’s Fried Chicken fame, to name a few.

Sutton’s dream team planned for 387 home sites of various sizes, shapes, and prices, all with a definite Texas Hill Country look and flavor.

And then he gave it something only Hal Sutton could: one of the best golf courses in Texas, a place he hoped would and believes will rival Augusta National. With its rugged hills dotted with cedars, curves and creatures, Boot Ranch offers golfers some of the most beautiful golfing terrain in the state. There are twin 40-foot waterfalls in front of the 10th green. The Dallas Morning News has ranked Boot Ranch no less than five times as one of the Top Ten Courses in Texas, and the course has been rated by Golf Digest as one of the Top 10 courses in the COUNTRY. The course measures 7,250 yards from the championship tees for a par of 71. Even veteran golfers find it a challenge each time they play. There is also a 34-acre practice park, which includes a short game range and an executive Par-3 course. The Director of golf is Emil Hale, hand-picked by Sutton himself.

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Boot Ranch launched in 2004 with the vision to create a world-class vacation home destination deep in the heart of Texas, with a true Texas twist. There would be a Sutton supreme golf course, a clubhouse village with casual and fine dining, pools and spa, guest lodges, zero-lot line low maintenance units, and acres of undeveloped acreage in between each homestead. This was not to be a development where units were crammed on the land to maximize return. Every element of the development would be completed on the highest level of luxury, and extended family would be encouraged to play and stay by way of a vertical membership to multiple generations. Traditional ranching is losing its luster with subsequent generations, and Boot Ranch would offer homeowners a chance to enjoy the romance of the ranch life, without the headaches. Homeowners could build homes of their choice, with builders of their choice, as long as design styles adhered to the community’s design standards to keep the look “Hill Country”. They could enjoy a community of activity right on the ranch on a level that Bick Benedict would have approved: trap and skeet shooting, fishing, hiking and mountain bike trails, horseback riding, swim and of course golf, and still be five minutes from the charm and amenities of Fredericksburg.

Then came the Greatest Recession since the Great Depression.

Like most vacation and second home communities during the financial crisis, Boot Ranch found its once-eager buyers holding back. After 37 brisk sales, Sutton brought in Legacy Properties for a restructuring in 2007, pumping in tens of millions in infrastructure costs. The U.S economy dove even further, and, like many developments across the nation, Boot Ranch equity was under water. Its resulting foreclosure left the estate of Lehman Brothers Holding Inc. – the major Boot Ranch noteholder – holding the keys.

Recognizing what a treasure they now owned deep in the heart of Texas, with a mandate to protect and maximize creditor assets, Lehman continued to fund, build out and finish the project. It was business as usual, riding out the storm, just as the Cowboys did on those craggy, rugged hills.

“Well, there’s one thing you got to say for cattle… boy, you put your brand on one of them, you’re gonna know where it’s at!”- Luz Benedict

Sutton had clearly branded a lifestyle at Boot Ranch, one that even a national financial crisis couldn’t touch. Part of Lehman’s luck was that Boot Ranch was located in the Lone Star State, a market that was barely touched by the recession. Texas residential real estate came back more quickly than other markets for several reasons: our values have never skyrocketed artificially as they have in some markets, and Texas puts the reins on home equity lines of credit, limiting them to 80% of home equity.

For two years, from 2008 to 2010, there was little sales movement at Boot Ranch. But when the economy turned north, the Texas real estate market turned into a Blue Norther. In 2011, Boot Ranch was at the top of lot sales for the State, selling between $10 and 20 million in inventory. And, Hal Sutton announced he was coming back to further brand the completion of his dream.

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In 2012, Boot completed the plans for its award-winning, 55,000 square foot rock stone Clubhouse Village. Steering up the steep hill on the rocky circular drive, you truly think you are coming into a centuries old Italian village. The clubhouse was designed by Mike Marsh, who recently completed the stunning remodeling of the toney Dallas Country Club in Highland Park, to maximize the terrain and view. A rock archway frames the vista over miles of the ranch and a waterfall leading to the lagoon pool, ranch club pavilion, tennis and sport courts. The Village includes the golf pro shop, men and women’s locker rooms complete with steam rooms, the spa and wellness center, exercise center, and the dining room. Boot Ranch offers owners a choice of casual or fine dining under the direction of Executive Chef Aaron Staudenmaier, who worked with famed restaurateur Kent Rathbun in Dallas. There are ten luxurious lodge suites for guests with jetted tubs, separate shower and rooms the size of Manhattan — some just under 1000 square feet. These function as extra living quarters for members’ family and friends.

Then there are the lots. Boot Ranch has a variety of options from the sprawling, elegant estate home sites, which range in price from $300,000 to $2.5 million for as little as 2 acres up to a whopping 18 acres, including club membership.

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There are the smaller Overlook Cabins, situated on approximately one-half acre sites with these price points starting at $239,000 to $449,000 including club membership, for dirt. Homes ranging from 1,800 to 4,000 square feet are going up as I write this, many pre-sold. Pricing for the lot and completed cabin ranges from $700,000 to $1.4 million.

Finally, Boot Ranch revived an old German trend from the original Fredericksburg settlers: the Sunday House. These were homes that were “shared” by settlers attending church services in town. The Sunday House gave them a place to rest, repast and refresh before the long ride back to the ranch, in a wagon or on horseback. Boot Ranch’s concept is a fractional ownership of each Sunday house with pricing at $300,000. Each Sunday House is about 3,800 square feet of detached space — a gathering house with family room, gourmet kitchen and laundry room, and four master bedroom suites, all detached but connected by walkways. It’s a similar concept to the way homes were built with detached rooms into the hills at Calistoga Ranch. The Sunday House concept has proven so popular and affordable, shares in the first four cabins are almost sold out and construction is underway on a fifth. Sunday House owners share their usage, averaging between 35-45 days each during a year. Buyers are streaming in primarily from Houston and Dallas, with others coming from San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth, Tyler, Midland, Odessa and elsewhere. A few are even from out-of -state.

In 2011, as the U.S. was waking up from the recession, the movie Seven Days in Utopia was filmed at Boot Ranch. Starring Robert Duvall, directed by Matt Russell, the movie is based on the book: Golf’s Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia, by David L. Cook, PhD. Cook is one of the country’s top sport psychology consultants and motivational speaker who has worked with more than 100 PGA Tour players. Among many coaching roles, Cook serves as sport psychology coach to the 1999 World Champion San Antonio Spurs. His story is about a young golfer who finds life’s purpose at the Links of Utopia.

In many ways, Hal Sutton found HIS life’s purpose at the Links at Boot Ranch, generating an attainable legacy for families to take a healing break from the insanity that 21st century life has become. It’s a place to kick back, put up your boots, re-connect with family and nature and maybe, just maybe, give you a chance to find your life’s purpose under the golden glaze of a Hill Country sunset.Boot Ranch 24





For those of us who haunt these four corners almost daily, I am thrilled to learn that Central Market will be filling in the old vacated Borders location on the southeast corner of Preston Royal. Course the commercial real estate world was saying that was going to be Trader Joe’s but honestly, I didn’t believe it. Trader Joe’s belongs up at LBJ and Preston/Forest or over in Lakewood, my humble opinion. Here’s the announcement from Central Market: Plans for Fifth Dallas-Fort Worth Location,” and why the  H-E-B, San Antonio-based conglomerate is  moving into the 30,000-square-foot space (about half of the Lover’s Lane store, which I quite frankly think it too big) with a new concept that this neighborhood is going to lap up — literally:

“Research has shown us, and many of our customers have told us, that while we’re a destination store — people will drive 10, 30, even more than 100 miles to shop with us — they’d like us to be more accessible, closer to home,” says Stephen Butt, Senior Vice President of Central Market H-E-B. “By adding a new, neighborhood-friendly store design to our portfolio, we can start to better respond to our customers’ interests. We believe this is a new way to bring Central Market’s offerings to more customers in the future.”

Butt goes on to explain the company has been looking at real estate around the state, and just wanted to find the perfect location to launch its new store concept. Well, Preston Royal is about as perfect as it can get. I’ve heard the demographics surrounding those four corners actually surpass Highland Park Village, which is about as Gold Coast as you can get. Also, I was at Celebrity the other day, and they told me traffic is way down for them since Borders closed. (They also told me no Trader Joe’s going in.) So having Central Market’s new store could bring in more customers… or competition especially if it offers a cafe, which it will. The new Central Market concept store opens before the holidays — Thanksgiving — yes!

PS: I need to post the Butt family’s second home compound in Port Aransas, coming up!

Update: The Dallas Morning News reports this new Central Market will feature more kosher foods, taking on the expanded Tom Thumb at Preston Forest. Dallas is one of the most competitive grocery markets in the country, and now we know why. BTW, I would rather have seen Trader Joe’s up at Preston Forest than Natural What-Ever It Is. Went in that store once, walked out without having touched my plastic. Anyone else get it?

We all know that, when it comes to marketing, the world has changed. And when it comes to marketing real estate, we may as well be on a different planet. No longer are cute cards and glossy brochures and, some might add, print advertising in pretty magazines and newspapers, enough. You’ve got to go viral, go FaceBook,  go Hollywood.

Which is why Chris Bright, son of the Texas Bright dynasty built on oil, football and banking, probably thought there was noting wrong with spending a million dollars to make a 60 minute, family-focused major movie about Bright’s 2,500-acre Castle Hills development north of Dallas near Denton. Remember, Chris’ dad, H.R. “Bum” Bright, owned the Dallas Cowboys from 1984 until selling the team to current owner Jerry Jones in 1989.

The movie was shot entirely in the neighborhoods, parks, shopping centers and golf courses of Castle Hills, and even used some resident kids and homeowners in large scenes. Produced by Ditore Mayo Entertainment, the film will debut Saturday April 2 at NorthPark Center mall as part of the Dallas International Film Festival. After its debut,  it will stream everywhere on the development’s website. And then, baby, it’s viral!

How can you make a movie about a housing development, even one as really nice as Castle Hills? Think Dennis the Menace meets Hank Hill in twenty years. “Cooper & the Castle Hills Gang,” follows the quest of 11-year-old Cooper (played by Kyle Kirk, an actor), his three friends and the elderly Mr. Wilson (played by J.B. Edwards) as they canvass Castle Hills for something Mr. Wilson has lost, a wedding ring. The film has B grade actors, and according to the Wall Street Journal,  really “focuses on its story rather than lingering on obvious marketing shots.” Nice.

Except ooops: WSJ said a hiccup comes when Cooper uses the term “mixed use urban center” in casual conversation. No, don’t think 11 year old talk like that. If he does, I want him as a blogger.

The movie will show Cooper at several of the more than 20 parks Castle Hills has to offer, along with the hike-and-bike trails, fishing lake, sports fields, community swimming and splash pools, and the outdoor Village Shops and Plaza.

Mr. Bright, 58, said he foresees the film helping his Bright Realty market Castle Hills’ commercial and residential land.

“Castle Hills was originally our family farm and holds childhood memories for the entire Bright family,” said Chris.

He may be onto something and find his phone ringing: the Saturday screening is sold out. Many second home developers are also taking to the movies, making docu-films of happy families enjoying life in their mountain, beach, or lakeside homes. I expect we’ll see lots more of this.

Castle Hills, which the family started developing in 1997, has 2,500 homes built, with another 600 planned. One third of its potential 1 million square feet of shops is built. An office-and-residential complex of more than 2 million square feet is in the planning.

“It’s a way of letting the community tell a little bit about itself through the residents and showing the community as a backdrop and not the focus,” Mr. Bright said.

There were several opportunities throughout filming for residents and neighbors to be part of the cast and crew, including a fireworks-filled re-enactment of the Castle Hills 4th of July event that calls for hundreds of extras. There will also be opportunities to help behind-the-scenes as a “PA for the day” (production assistant).  To give you a taste of the flavor,  a 1965 red Ford Mustang was called for as a prop.

PS: I have been to Castle Hills and love it. Chris Bright (who’s kind of a big kid at heart) took me on a personal tour in his 1960’s era auto, showing me each park he personally designed. His greatest wish, he said, was to give kiddos great places to play and create memories. It’s the closest thing to bubble living outside of the Dallas “bubble” I have ever seen, and I loved the multiple castle themes for kids. Dare I say, I even felt a bit as if I were in The Truman Show: life in Castle Hills can look that perfect at times.

And now, Hollywood!

Update: people have emailed me about Castle Hills, some saying a few homes in the area had foundation problems back when it was first built out. Here’s what I received from an agent who asked to remain anonymous: “There is a high concentration of clay soil in CH (along with a lot of other areas in Dallas) and there were some publicized issues with houses in one area back in the early days of the neighborhood. The cause of the foundation issues in that case was a ruptured water main that flooded the clay substrate and it was confined to one custom builder that has not been building in the area for many years. Builders have been working in this area for a decade now, and do full soil testing to determine what is necessary to prevent shifting. Regardless, I think you should advise readers to hire an independent soil engineer for an analysis. I will add there is clay substrate in many parts of Dallas south of LBJ, including the Marsh Lane area. Buyers need to do due diligence.”

I know, Case-Shiller says sales and housing prices are down in Dallas-Fort Worth. It was a pretty sucky report. The only places where sales are up — San Francisco, San Diego and Washington D.C., where all the government jobs are bringing in YPs by the bushels sporting $100 to $300K jobs, all seeking housing. But before you go polish off the Thanksgiving leftovers because you are so depressed, hear me out. Looking at those magical maps the Dallas Morning News produces from the MLS, we see that real estate is truly a local story right down to the block here. Full disclosure: agents tell me sales are happening because sellers are caving in on prices — we are NOT giving away homes in Dallas, but we are getting very real about pricing. Sellers finally have the message: the good old days are gonesville.

I want you to take note of Allen —  north of LBJ, north of Plano, where home prices remain flat. (Flat is OK in this market.)  Watters Creek, the Village at Fairview and the Village at Allen  Shopping Centers continue to pull in some of the highest net worth vendors in the USA, even during this tough as nails economic climate. The Village at Fairview is one component of a joint, 3-million-square-foot, regional, mixed-use lifestyle center developed by The MGHerring Group and located in both Fairview and Allen, Texas. Anchored by Dillard’s, Macy’s and JCPenney, The Village at Fairview launched its second retail phase in 2010 with more than 40 new specialty stores and restaurants, including major tenants $20 movie tickets Gold Class Cinemas, The Container Store and a brand new Whole Foods Market®.  The Village at Fairview also features “The Cortona” with more than 400 luxury multifamily residential units.

Home sales are actually up in two parts of Dallas/Fort Worth — Park Cities (47%) and Westlake (33%). Because Vaquero is hot baby, hot. Sales are also up in Oak Lawn, Grapevine, Southlake, Colleyville, and Preston Hollow. But no one beats the protective bubble of the Park Cities when it comes to retaining property values in a TERRIBLE economic climate. Why? Because you will almost always be guaranteed a great place to live, safety, services, and decent schools for your kids or the next buyer’s.

Wanna buy some blue chip real estate? Look at that map, commit to memory the places where homes are selling right now, and start shopping.