Development cowboy ridin’ high

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By Steve Israel
Times Herald-Record
sisrael@th-record.com

Bethel – Call him The Cowboy Donald

He’s the steer-wrestling builder of one of the most spectacular luxury home developments this side of Montana – 6,000 rolling acres of wild Sullivan County woods and water. More than 100 rustic homes, many with a price tag of a million bucks or more. Carved eagles inside, real ones outside. A $200 million development deal.

Catskill cowboy Steve Dubrovsky is a savior, say folks ranging from his hometown of Bethel all the way to Washington, D.C.
“A credit to our county,” says Sullivan County Attorney Ira Cohen. “He’s bringing a whole new class of people here.”
“Something we can all hang our hats on,” says Assemblyman Jake Gunther about the gated development called the Chapin Estate.

“It’s going to make life there very special,” says former United Artists president David Picker, who’s having a lakefront home built by Dubrovsky.

Wait. Hold your horses, say some folks in the neighboring little Hamlet of Smallwood.
Politicians bow down to the rodeo champion, they say. When Dubrovsky wanted a town road leading to his land closed, the town closed it, they say. His company is marketing land near the Chapin Estate in Bethel – owned by the Bethel supervisor.

“If this isn’t a case of a developer having a Town Board in his pocket, I don’t know what is,” says Smallwood’s Harold Saltzman.

Dubrovsky swears on his leather saddles that he plays by the rules. So does Bethel, which reopened the road after pressure from Smallwood. Its supervisor now abstains from Chapin business.

Call this Catskill cowboy whatever you want. But know this: the man rodeo champ Smokey Smith calls “one tough bulldogger” has mastered the art of the development deal.

And it all began with a gamble worthy of “The Donald.”

Dubrovsky plunked down $5 million on property with a reservoir that was draining. The trees couldn’t be cleared without a huge forestry program penalty. He had no guarantee the lots of at least five acres each would sell at their six-figure prices.

“I’ve had a lot of sweat run down my butt,” says Dubrovsky, sitting in his office near the Woodstock festival site, a converted red barn where a lasso hangs on a coat rack.
So the Catskill cowboy went to work.

When Dubrovsky wanted the electric company that owns the Toronto Reservoir to stop draining the water, he called U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and Assemblymen Jake Gunther and John Bonacic.

He and his partners donated some $35,000 to them – and Gov. George Pataki – over the last few years, with most going to Bonacic and Schumer. Dubrovsky held a fund-raiser for Schumer at his woodsy headquarters where carved raccoons grace a wagon wheel chandelier. A Bonacic staffer toured the Chapin Estate last week.

The water level of the lakefront homes, which once dropped so low you could see brown dirt, is now full and bright blue.
When he needed the town and county to help him avoid penalties from cutting down trees, he drove to tiny town halls in his GMC Yukon. The county convened a meeting for him.

Attorney Cohen found a part of the law that allows most of the penalty to be waived. The land went back on the tax rolls. Dubrovsky’s company, Woodstone, paid all of the taxes for the first phase of development, which amounted to $190,000. He got back $53,000 through the part of the law that waived the exemptions.

That means $365,000 for Bethel, the county and the school system each year –- compared to $291 if the 35-home first phase of the estate plan had remained undeveloped.

“It’s economic development and it protects the water and the land,” says Dubrovsky. “Why shouldn’t they support me?”
“Who can complain about that?” asks Cohen.

“The guy’s fearless,” says Picker, the former movie mogul. “He’s jumped off a horse to wrestle the steer down. He has a vision. He’s willing to take risks.”

The son of a professor of Yiddish has been taking risks since his bar mitzvah. That’s when his uncle gave him a horse to ride on his family’s former chicken farm in Farmingdale, N.J. A neighbor saw Dubrovsky riding in circles. A real man wouldn’t do that, the neighbor said. A real man would jump off a horse and corral a steer. Even though his mother was furious, cowboy Dubrovsky was born. When he made $300 for 10 seconds of work, he was hooked.

But Dubrovsky was also a kid who liked to play with wood building blocks – “and concoct all sorts of structures,” says his mom, Gertrude.

So when he saw the empty concrete chicken coops on his family’s farm, he had an idea.
Why not turn them into houses and sell them – for $50,000 to $60,000. Not a bad price some 35 years ago in rural Jersey.

Soon, the Jersey cowboy was building, bucking and not going to college.

He sketched homes when he hit the rodeo trail – particularly the log and stone mountain homes he saw in the great Northwest. Back in Jersey, he added those touches to ranch homes he helped build. When he saw a story in Forbes magazine about a down-on-its-luck county just two hours from New York City, he headed to Sullivan.

Dubrovsky discovered the untouched 6,000 acres of woods, wildlife and water that were part of the estate of Manhattan businessman Chester Chapin.

He hooked up with two partners to raise the $5 million to buy it – Dan Silna, who had turned part ownership of the old St. Louis Spirit ABA basketball team into a fortune and already had three Dubrovsky homes and Howard Schoor, who owns a New Jersey engineering firm and builds 600 homes per year.

Together they spend thousands on ads in The New York Times, thousands more for billboards on Route 17. Dubrovsky turns up at all sorts of town meetings to win approvals and, he says, to “keep the towns comfortable.”

He dines with cable magnate Alan Gerry, who’s building a performing arts center within walking distance from Dubrovsky’s office. Then he chows down with the regulars at Blanche’s Diner in Mongaup Valley. He trades his sneakers for cowboy boots for a fund-raiser for Pataki and a town meeting with Schumer. Why, he’s even moving his longhorns to the Estate for “window dressing.”

All reasons why you can call Steve Dubrovsky The Cowboy Donald, the master of the art of the development deal. He’s earned the title.

Copyright © 2011 Howard Schoor Comanies

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