Chattanooga developer buys Rarity Communities, promises conservation, development in Meigs County

Chattanooga developer buys Rarity Communities, promises conservation, development in Meigs County

September 6th, 2013 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Blythe Ferry is located on the Tennessee River in Meigs County, Tenn.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

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Rarity Rivers redo

Buyer: Vital-Blyth Ferry Holdings LLC, a limited partnership owned by Chattanooga developer Greg Vital

Seller: Capital Bank, which foreclosed on former owners Mike Ross and Toby McKenzie in 2009

Sales price: $4 million

Size: 528 acres near the Tennessee and Hiwassee River juncture and adjacent to the Hiwassee Wildlife Preserve

As the "Rarity Force One" helicopter flew prospective buyers over 528 acres of lakefront property nearly six years ago, developer Mike Ross promised the Meigs County development "would be the nicest community we have ever built" among the dozen similar golf course communities begun a decade ago.

But Ross' high-flying dreams soon were grounded by the housing slump that undermined his billion-dollar development dreams for Rarity Communities planned across East Tennessee. The proposed Rarity Rivers complex -- the last Rarity community launched by Ross before his financial collapse -- sold only four of the planned 600 home lots. Plans for an 18-hole championship golf course and boat marina on Chickamauga Lake never got off the drawing board.

After years of foreclosure and ownership battles, the Meigs County site has a new owner with a new vision. Chattanooga developer Greg Vital purchased the former Rarity Rivers development this summer, including the four lots that were repurchased by the bank. Vital is developing a new plan for the scenic lakefront site.

Vital, the 57-year-old CEO of Independent Healthcare Properties based in Ooltewah, calls himself both a conservationist and a developer. He says he is eager to both protect and develop his newest acquisition, which straddles both sides of Highway 60 near the juncture of the Tennessee and Hiwassee rivers.

"This is probably the most spectacular waterfront property anywhere within a 30-minute drive of Chattanooga," Vital said. "This is a special place so we want to work to develop it in the right way that protects the environment and enhances the whole region."

Vital has no immediate plans to develop the site and he says he isn't likely to try to build the same type of golf course development on the property envisioned by its former owners.

Vital's business, Vital-Blyth Ferry Holdings LLC, paid $4 million for the former Rarity Rivers, or less than a third of what Mike Ross and his partner, Cleveland millionaire Toby McKenzie, paid and borrowed for the property nearly a decade ago. Capital Bank, the successor to the former GreenBank, foreclosed on the property in 2010 after McKenzie filed for bankruptcy and Ross' Rarity Communities ran out of money and was unable to repay the $15.2 million loan for the project.

"This property has more than a mile and a quarter of river frontage on the Chickamauga Lake with great access along Highway 60 and it is located adjacent to the scenic Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge," said Howard Bickerstaff, a commercial real estate agent for the Bick Real Estate Co., in Chattanooga who brokered the sale of the property. "There was a lot interest in this property and it was coveted by many. But in this tough of a market, there are not a lot of players who can pay for this type of property and spend the money needed to develop it."

Meigs County Mayor Gaylord Lankford said he is pleased that the stalled project is in the hands again of a developer who can bring new life into the project.

"It was really going to be a marvelous project for this entire region when it started, but unfortunately when the economy went south, some great projects went down with it and this was one of those projects," Lankford said. "I think Greg Vital is the perfect guy to make this work and I'm real excited about its future."

Vital has been a donor to land conservation and Cherokee Indian memorials in the region and has developed assisted living centers, senior housing projects and offices in five states. Vital owns a farm where he raises buffalo in northern Hamilton County only about eight miles from the Meigs County lakefront site.

"We're looking at lots of options at this point," Vital said. "I'm not in any hurry to rush a new development on the property and over time I'm confident we can find the right development that makes sense at the right time."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or 757-6340