From Main Street in the center of the small city of Longmont, Colo., Nelson Road heads west a few miles into the prairie, where there's an intersection with 75th Street running north-south, a stone's throw from Vance Brand Airport.
To the southeast, there's property, known to Longmont locals for 100 years or so as the August Nelson Farm, after homesteaders who arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1860s and settled in Colorado about eight years later. The Rocky Mountains form an ice-capped horizon set majestically behind about 160 acres of land with a prairie and agrarian past. In its future, this turf—the West Grange mixed-use commercial and residential community of about 450 single-family and multifamily homes, restaurants, and retailers that will go up soon around Longmont's Dry Creek Greenway—provides a forward glimpse at how a 400-home-a-year builder, whose four-decade pedigree is purest green, sees itself finally coming of age.
From Boulder down to Denver, in clusters and neighborhoods along the Rockies' front range, homes built by a company started by Caroline and Tom Hoyt are a testament to the Hoyts' post-1960s, neo-spiritual, earth-friendly vision. Fire-in-the-belly passion for a different kind of home building—that combines indigenously cobbled architectural features and cutting edge environmentalist building—helped evolve the McStain Neighborhoods name over the decades into something of a local home building hero, a contender in a sphere of market arenas in the Boulder vicinity.
So, when freshly anointed president Eric Wittenberg sat down one day in 2002 to analyze a project McStain had completed in Longmont, a city of about 80,000, he told city planning director Brad Schol that he'd delight at any further opportunity to work with Longmont planners on projects in the future. Schol felt exactly the same way, as dealing with McStain was a radically different experience for a city planner than the normal routine with production home builders.
“He gets up from the conference table, goes into his office, and comes back out with a map of the city and environs, which he proceeds to draw circles on, noting property owners, and what one might do to get an inside track with them,” says Wittenberg, whom the Hoyts courted in 2001 to join the company as CEO in-waiting. One of Schol's markings, it turns out, was the 160-acre parcel old timers still referred to as the August Nelson Farm, which more recent owner, Orville Kubat, was going to put up for sale. Hence, West Grange, which will go online for sale in the coming months.
GROWTH THE GREEN WAY Clearly, McStain's environmentally enlightened formula for community development and home construction, especially within two- to five-mile rings of cities of varied sizes, has been winning fans, not only among home buyers, but among a number of municipal planners and real estate operatives who first hear of available land. Both West Grange, and the way McStain won the chance to conceptualize and build it, illustrate how home-field nimbleness in a $110 million builder can often trump impossibly deep pockets in the pursuit of land positions and production building opportunity.
Wittenberg's ambitions for McStain are, well, ambitious. High on the two-year to-do list is to continue to stabilize his 113-person, employee-owned structure around an evolving, mission-centric business growth plan. In turn, he wants to add about 50 percent in volume to McStain's Colorado area home sales, and then quickly double in scale by exporting the McStain formula to another state—California, Washington State, or Georgia, perhaps. What's become abundantly evident, though, is that the path to scale for McStain is gravitationally closer to cities' downtowns, versus pushing single-family production in the ever-widening peripheries far outside city limits.
And it all started with breakfast. Wittenberg's father and father's father were home builders. Right out of school in Southern California in the 1980s, young Eric went into banking as a lender, but it wasn't long before one of his clients—Fieldstone Company—snatched him out of banking and into home builder finance. Fast forward to 2001, when Wittenberg had parlayed his father's “make your own mistakes, don't repeat mine” philosophy into a determined arc of learning and career growth—including a brief, ill-fitting stop at KB Home. He took a call from Tom Hoyt and agreed to meet for a conversation over coffee one morning.
They met at the Westin Hotel in Westminster, about halfway between Denver and Boulder, for what was proposed as a “casual conversation.” It turned into three hours of passionate exchange about home building and social responsibility, complete with napkin diagrams, shared visions, and, ultimately the offer to join McStain as the company's CEO-in-waiting.
“Tom's diagrams for the business and the role of home builders were almost identical to mine,” recalls Wittenberg. “Not that he insisted I think exactly like him, but it made for an uncanny excitement in our conversation. We both think of home building as the ability to do business among really fun people who are making a difference. There's definitely a responsibility level to building for the present and for posterity. Tom and I both feel strongly about that. ”
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Denver, CO.