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Roberts' empire shows signs of stress
Roberts

Roberts' empire shows signs of stress

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A homeless man's bedroll lies stashed in the alcove of an empty downtown St. Louis building that was to be razed, making way for a hip boutique hotel.

One block east, a sleek, new 25-story condo tower has become an instant downtown landmark — even though it has no residents. Four blocks farther east sits a building left vacant after a nightclub moved out in a rent dispute.

Linking the sites is ownership by Mike and Steve Roberts, politically active brothers and businessmen who have amassed substantial holdings in real estate, broadcast television and cellphone towers over the last four decades. For most of that career, the brothers — both of them former St. Louis aldermen — seemed to be on a roll. But more recently, despite grandiose plans, their ventures have left a trail of stalled projects, court battles and allegations of unpaid bills.

Some who have done business with the Robertses say many of their difficulties stem from the real estate collapse. Among them is Josiah Cox, co-owner of Trumpet Builders, who said the brothers got caught short when the economy tanked. "They built at the height of the real estate boom," he said.

Last year, Roberts Cos., the brothers' main corporate identity, sold its wireless communications tower business to American Tower Corp. for $88.5 million. At the time, Mike Roberts, the chief executive, said the sale provided money to shore up other business interests and make new deals.

"Their main focus now is on real estate and hotels," said Michael Jennings, who helps run many of the brothers' St. Louis real estate holdings.

Many of those ventures have stagnated. The Roberts brothers aren't talking about them; for more than a year, they have not responded to calls seeking comment about their condo tower and other real estate projects.

But many of their holdings speak for themselves.

One behind-schedule project is the $70 million Roberts Tower, a 300-foot-tall glass and concrete tower at 411 North Eighth Street. In late 2008, with the building under construction, Steve Roberts said residents would arrive in early 2010. Now, Jennings said, the target is early 2012.

Shula's 347 Grill on the ground floor will open soon, he said. Second-floor meeting rooms are in use and connected to the adjoining Mayfair Hotel, which the brothers own.

"It was all the economy," Jennings said of the delays. "It all fell apart. For a while, we were dragging our feet intentionally, because there was no reason to bring anything to market."

The brothers also own three buildings in the 900 block of Locust Street, the proposed site of a $25 million Hotel Indigo. Plans call for replacing the two smaller buildings and renovating the remaining 12-story structure. For now, the buildings are empty, including the one where the homeless man sleeps. In 2008, the Robertses said they hoped the Indigo would open in 2010. A spokeswoman for InterContinental Hotel Group, which owns the Indigo brand, said the project remains in "the development pipeline."

HOMEGROWN SUCCESS

The brothers grew up in St. Louis and graduated from Northwest High School. They spend time with their families at a resort they own near Nassau, the Bahamas, and run their companies from a one-time Sears store on North Kingshighway. They renamed it the Victor Roberts Building, after their father, and filled it with small businesses.

Mike Roberts has said in interviews he is the visionary in the brothers' business endeavors, while Steve, three years younger, oversees daily operations. Both brothers have law degrees, and both won aldermanic elections while in their 20s.

Since 1974, they have developed nearly a dozen hotels in Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina, as well as in St. Louis, and built their broadcast and cell tower businesses into substantial players.

They got into the media business in 1989 by launching WHSL-TV (Channel 46) as a Home Shopping Network in St. Louis. Four years later, they moved the station to the UPN network and changed the call letters to WRBU. Since 2005, they have launched CW Network TV affiliates in Columbia, S.C., and Jackson, Miss., plus a radio station in Jackson.

As privately held companies, the Robertses' businesses are not required to disclose revenue. In 2004, when the brothers' endeavors seemed to be flying high, their worth was estimated at $500 million.

But the brothers' broadcast businesses increasingly have spawned conflicts that landed them in court. On three occasions, content providers have alleged the brothers' broadcasting businesses have not paid program fees.

On March 1, a Los Angeles judge awarded CBS Corp. a $1.04 million judgment against Roberts Broadcasting after CBS subsidiaries claimed it failed to pay for syndicated shows.

In 2009, 20th Century Fox sued Roberts Broadcasting for more than $1 million in fees. The two sides settled last year for an undisclosed amount.

Still pending in Los Angeles is a suit by Warner Bros., which claims Roberts Broadcasting owes $1.4 million from licensing agreements to air programs.

MORE COURT FIGHTS

The brothers also have fought legal battles over development projects. Before opening their Hotel Indigo on Lindell Boulevard in the Central West End in 2009, they squabbled with two subcontractors over the $4.4 million renovation of what had been a 1950s motor lodge.

The brothers won a $607,000 judgment against one contractor, Interior Solutions LLC, for unfinished work. But court records indicate they have been unable to collect that money. Meanwhile, a second contractor, DK Interior Solutions, won a $320,000 judgment over bills that the Roberts brothers' company allegedly did not pay. The contractor is still trying to collect the money through a lawsuit and garnishments.

And now the hotel is no longer an Indigo. An employee said the name changed March 28 to Roberts Hotel Central West End. Jennings said that "we thought a different brand would do better there." InterContinental Hotel Group officials were not immediately available late Wednesday.

The brothers planned another hotel at 400 Washington Avenue about four years ago, naming it Roberts Vista. Roberts Downtown Development Co. bought the former WS Hotel with an eye toward redoing it as extended-stay lodging. But they have abandoned that plan, Jennings said, and are now considering apartments and condos for that building.

Court records show that, in January, the company won a $66,225 judgment in a rent dispute with the Jazz Spot, a club on the building's first floor. The club has since left, and the building sits empty.

Other real estate projects have suffered from more basic issues.

The Robertses bought what now is known as the Roberts Orpheum Theater in 2004. The downtown site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The brothers initially made a splash with shows such as the Backstreet Boys, Alanis Morissette, Lyle Lovett and Jewel. But the big names soon vanished. The Orpheum is putting greater emphasis on private and corporate events, Jennings said, and adding to its lineup professional boxing.

Another historic site, now called Roberts Place, is anchored by a former school the brothers renovated as 70 apartments for $20 million.

In 2009, the Roberts Cos. said they would turn the site — on Enright Avenue in the Visitation Park neighborhood — into senior-living units, called Roberts Place Lofts. That didn't happen, Jennings said. About two dozen single-family homes were planned next to the school, but that didn't happen, either. Only three display homes were built.

Asked about a timetable to finish the project, Jennings says, it's "on the books to do someday."

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