After personal tragedy, Laurice Hachem joins booming development picture in Benton County

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 7,694 views 

By Wesley Hitt: Laurice Hachem moved to Rogers last year and has already made an impression in the commercial real estate market.

It’s a cold November morning, and real estate investor-turned-developer Laurice Hachem is walking through her new office space inside Hunt Tower, the 10-story high-rise in the maturing Pinnacle Hills area off Interstate 49 in Rogers.

A long boardroom table and a few other pieces of furniture arrived for Hachem only a day earlier, and she is just beginning to transform the bare space into a functioning office for her company, SLH Property Management & Services Inc.

There is also another transformation Hachem is managing — her own. At one time a semi-celebrity in Florida as a successful real estate investor and philanthropist, Hachem moved to Northwest Arkansas in the summer of 2017, a little more than a year following the death of her husband, Sam.

Her initial commercial real estate investment in the region was not a small one. In April, she paid $27 million in cash to acquire the two-building office/retail development known as Country Club Plaza — as well as an adjacent undeveloped lot — all near the front gate of Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers, the embodiment of upscale residential addresses in Northwest Arkansas.

Hachem has since spent millions more on two small businesses and various other residential and commercial properties in the region. It includes additional land around Country Club Plaza to create a “superblock” of Hachem-owned property, with additional development of her own in the pipeline.

Her investments also include 55 acres west of the entrance to the gated Shadow Valley neighborhood in Rogers. It puts Hachem in an advantageous position, considering a road extension is planned to run through the property, connecting West Pleasant Grove Road to Arkansas Highway 112 in Cave Springs.

Hachem has also made philanthropic contributions to a handful of organizations. A seven-figure gift is helping Fayetteville-based organization Arkansas Athletes Outreach build a Benton County branch on Pleasant Grove Road in Rogers. Financial support for the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith is also forthcoming. It continues a pattern by the Hachem family of giving in several states to a variety of causes including healthcare, law enforcement and youth education.

Though she still maintains a residence in Tampa — not to mention a sizable investment portfolio of roughly 500,000 square feet of office and retail space — Hachem’s business moves in Northwest Arkansas indicate an interest in becoming a player in the region’s booming commercial real estate market.

It will be a role she is familiar with — with one exception. Gone from her side is her husband, whose death largely precipitated her move to Northwest Arkansas.

MOVING TO NWA
“That bookshelf is not right and will be sent back,” Hachem said, motioning toward the furniture while giving a walkthrough tour of her new office space.

It is a small example, but it is one of many decisions Hachem will make during the course of a day. They are the kinds of choices, big and small, that for more than 35 years were shared with her husband. They formed a dynamic Florida power couple known for their success in commercial real estate investments and for their charitable giving. They owned shopping centers, office buildings and apartment complexes.

On March 31, 2016, however, Sam Hachem died in Tampa, where the couple lived for most of their lives since meeting in 1981 in California and marrying in 1988 in Las Vegas. Hachem was 80, and his cause of death was from complications of a progressive brain disorder known as Lewy body dementia.

To say the two were close would be an understatement. In a recent interview, Hachem brought a framed photo of her and her husband to the meeting and sat it on the table.

“When you think of a couple together and a business partnership, their relationship is what everyone would dream it would be,” said Mechelle Meredith-Ehardt, Laurice Hachem’s daughter from a previous marriage. She works for her mom’s company as a vice president and also lives in Rogers with her husband, Bobby. “She was the brains, and he was the brawn. They were inseparable.”

In the months that followed her husband’s death, Hachem said she struggled. And bought more real estate. But it became apparent to the California-born Hachem that she couldn’t stay in Tampa any longer.

“Everything there was Sam,” she recalled.

Santa Fe, N.M., might be an ideal spot to relocate and start life without her late husband, Hachem thought. But it was Bobby Ehardt who initiated the research that first put Northwest Arkansas on his mother-in-law’s radar. With a political bent that has always leaned Republican, Hachem joked that her first thought of living in Arkansas was not immediately intriguing.

“All I thought of when I hear ‘Arkansas’ was the Clintons,” she said.

The family’s research, though, continued to turn up Northwest Arkansas’ accolades from several national publications as being among the best and safest places in the U.S. to live and work. It wasn’t long before Hachem and her daughter boarded an airplane and set out sight unseen for a fact-finding visit to the region in June 2017.

They stayed in Northwest Arkansas for 10 days, and as is often the case with unsuspecting visitors, Northwest Arkansas made a strong impression. Before leaving, Hachem spent nearly $3 million to buy two homes in Rogers — one for her and another for her daughter and son-in-law.

Hachem’s house hunting helped her make some early connections. She spent a lot of time with Kristen Boozman, a Realtor and owner of Portfolio Luxury Real Estate in Rogers and the oldest daughter of U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and her husband John Schmelzle, who’s a developer and also a member of the Rogers Planning Commission.

“John and Kristen have been amazing,” Hachem said. “I’ve really been able to lean on them.”

Hachem said longtime developer and philanthropist Johnelle Hunt, a co-founder of Lowell-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and the chairman of development firm Hunt Ventures of Rogers, has also been supportive of her efforts to get involved in the business community.

“I am overly impressed with [Hunt],” Hachem said. “She has invited Mechelle and I to different functions with her, and her door is always open. She is an amazing lady.”

The two businesswomen also share another common bond — pressing forward with their careers following the death of their husbands. Johnnie Bryan Hunt died suddenly in December 2006 at the age of 79. His death came several days after he slipped on ice and fell while leaving a Benton County restaurant, hitting his head. J.B. and Johnelle had been married for 54 years.

“She is further along than I am with the passing of her husband, but I think one day when I am a little more comfortable, I might knock on her door and discuss that,” Hachem said.

Johnelle Hunt continued to pursue her husband’s passionate interest in real estate development, and Hunt Ventures is today one of the dominant developers in Arkansas, with significant real estate holdings in Pinnacle Hills, in both land and buildings.

Tom Allen, executive vice president of Cushman & Wakefield/Sage Partners of Rogers, the commercial real estate firm that represents Hunt Ventures, has also become friends with Hachem. He said he has been impressed with her business acumen.

“I’m excited she has chosen to live in Northwest Arkansas and is getting involved in Northwest Arkansas,” he said. “I’m positive that whatever she is going to develop, it will be a first-class facility.”

ONE UPTOWN

Courtesy HFA: This architectural rendering depicts One Uptown, proposed for the intersection of South Champions Boulevard and West Pauline Whitaker Parkway in Rogers. The first floor will be occupied by retail tenants, the second floor by office tenants and the third floor will feature two rooftop restaurants.

Hachem and her late husband invested in real estate in multiple states and Canada, but she had to come to Arkansas to try her hand at developing.

“Sam always told me to stick with what we know,” Hachem said. “We don’t build. We buy existing real estate.”

With such a dynamic market for development, though, Hachem is making plans to break that rule and will break ground next spring on a building of her own.

It’s called One Uptown, and is targeted for a 2-acre site at the intersection of South Champions Boulevard and West Pauline Whitaker Parkway, within view of the front gate of Pinnacle Country Club.

According to development plans filed with the city, the three-story building is approximately 69,000 square feet. Hachem said the first floor will be occupied by retail tenants, the second floor by office tenants and the third floor will feature two rooftop restaurants.

“We’re hoping to break ground by March 1,” Hachem said.

The value of the project is still being determined, but it’s at least $15 million, Hachem said. HFA (Harrison French & Associates), a full-service architectural firm in Bentonville, has been hired to provide architectural, engineering and landscaping services. Thomas Merritt is the project architect. Dave Wilgus is the HFA principal in charge of the project.

“I am impressed with the whole [Hachem] family,” Wilgus said. “They really are bringing in a breath of fresh air and coming in with lots of perspective from the West and East coasts, and I love their energy. Laurice is really forward-thinking and wants to be a part of the fabric that is being developed here.”

Wilgus said One Uptown will be one of the more “unique” buildings in Northwest Arkansas, because of the building design that includes space for rooftop restaurants. He said Bobby Ehardt, an artist and engineer by trade, played a significant role in the building design.

“He had a real vision for this building from day one, and Laurice has been very clear that she is very happy with how that vision is coming to life,” Wilgus said. “The amenities that they want seem to be very conscious of the area and the people in that area. Even to the point of having some space for golf cart parking.”

One Uptown is one of several projects expected to get off the ground next year in the Pinnacle Hills area of Rogers, which is arguably the hottest area in Arkansas for commercial development. In the future, Hachem said she also has plans to build a 10-story mixed-use building in the area, on the south side of Country Club Plaza on South Pinnacle Hills Parkway.

Tom Allen said along with the large-scale development Whisinvest Realty is doing to build out The District at Pinnacle Hills along Pauline Whitaker Parkway, Hachem’s One Uptown building is another example of a project that will add value to the entire area.

In other words, as the maxim goes, a rising tide raises all ships.

“There is certainly no animosity,” Allen said. “Yes, it’s going to be competition, but there’s always going to be competition. It’ll be first class, and it’s going to be done right. And it’ll be an attraction as opposed to a detraction to what we’ve got.”