By Jack Witthaus, Senior Staff Writer, Orlando Business Journal, Sep 1, 2020
Mike Wright hasn’t been blessed with a square piece of land.
Wright — a lawyer-turned-developer — has been tackling challenging properties for new construction projects since he started his Orlando-based company, MMI Development, in the late 1990s. His most recent project may prove to be the biggest test yet: converting a former Orange County landfill at 10601 Lake Underhill Road into 1,500 apartment units and up to 100,000 square feet of commercial space.
The landfill project will be the largest development Wright’s company has undertaken in Central Florida. The development, called Fieldstream Village, is seeking multiple Orange County approvals and would be built in four phases. Construction may start in early 2022.
“All the good projects go to the big companies with capital,” Wright said. “Everything I’ve looked at are things people don’t want to do. I realized early on if I was going to have a successful career I was going to have to figure out how to solve these projects.”
Wright recently spoke with Orlando Business Journal about breaking into real estate, the Fieldstream Village project and the best advice he has for people in business.
What was your first job? Picking okra in the summer in Mississippi in 100-plus degree heat. There would be gnats in your face. You had to wear gloves and long-sleeve shirts because it was very unpleasant.
How’d you end up in Orlando? I worked in Jackson, Mississippi for several years at a law firm and learned real estate fundamentals. I was looking to leave for another city. I got a call from an Orlando law firm. They bought me a plane ticket, I visited on a Friday and they sent me an offer the following Monday. So I moved here in 1990.
What attracted you to development? I just didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. I inherited some land in Mississippi which I sold and took my share of the capital, about $75,000, and moved on.
What was it like starting a company? It was pretty scary. I didn’t know much, but I made sure I never believed [in] things not supported by facts and logic. There’s a lot of bravado and braggadocio in the development business. That’s not always a good idea because you believe in projects that aren’t possible. I don’t like to talk about things until they’re successful. And I haven’t had any failures.
Does your law background make you a better developer? I think so. It’s shocking how many people I run into that don’t read the rules. I have to remind city planners, engineers and permitting authorities that this is what rules say. I don’t accept anything anyone tells me as gospel. Period. Until you know there’s a source document backing up anything, you don’t know if it’s made up or not. Being a lawyer has helped me become a better critical thinker.
How did you find the landfill site for the Fieldstream Village project? I saw the site for the first time in 1999. The attorney for the site was a member of the University Club where I’m a member. He asked if I was interested and I ran the numbers and passed on the deal. He later came back to me and said if anyone can build on this it’s you. I said OK but I need time and I don’t want to put a deposit down.
How do the neighbors feel? They’re 100% on board with the plan. I’m going to clean up something the county hasn’t. We’re going to be building a downtown area that’s better than what they have at Baldwin Park. And I’m signing up a tenant that will be a game-changer for that area in terms of education.
What makes the site attractive? University of Central Florida has really exploded, and there’s growth from other companies nearby, too. All of this feeds demand. It’s been one of the better apartment markets in Central Florida and a lot of sites are disappearing out there.
Do you get more satisfaction going after and completing more challenging projects? No. Every time I finish one I think I’ll never do this again. Then I’m like I made some money so maybe I’ll do this again. It’s a love-hate relationship.
What’s the best advice you have? It’s up to you to be successful, not anyone else. No one has your best interest at heart other than yourself. Don’t wait to be told to do anything. So what if you make a mistake. Never give up. Every obstacle is solvable.
– President, Orlando-based MMI Development
– Hometown: Lucedale, Mississippi
– Age: 62
– Pets: German shorthaired pointer named Jack
– Hobbies: Racquetball and squash
– Favorite recent TV show: “Alone”
– Favorite recent podcasts: “The History of Rome” and “Hardcore History”