Ken Dart, the international businessman and developer who owns Dart (Realty) Cayman Ltd. and its many assets in the Cayman Islands, doesn’t give media interviews. However, his long-time Cayman-based CEO Mark VanDevelde sometimes does, and he doesn’t mind talking, at least a little, about his privacy-loving boss.
Mr. VanDevelde joined the Dart organization in Mason, Michigan right after he graduated from university in 1993. The following year, shortly after Ken Dart purchased the West Indian Club property on Seven Mile Beach, he moved to Grand Cayman and became the organization’s first employee on the island.
Over the past 21 years, Mr. VanDevelde has been at the forefront of Dart’s many commercial and philanthropic activities here in Cayman, including the development of Camana Bay and the Kimpton [Seafire Resort + Spa], investing in several local businesses, purchasing various real estate properties and supporting numerous charitable or community initiatives.
He has worked with Ken Dart for more than two decades and while his boss may seem like an enigma to many, Mr. VanDevelde knows him well, and was willing to share some insights about the man and his plans as they relate to the Cayman Islands.
The West Indian Club property was purchased as Ken Dart’s residence in April 2004, and that’s what it is still – although Mr. VanDevelde admits that some of his colleagues are trying to convince Mr. Dart to allow that property to be incorporated into the development site to the south, which is where the old Coral Caymanian Hotel used to be.
The purchase of the 238-acre Coral Caymanian site in June 1995 was the catalyst for what has become Camana Bay, and all of Dart’s commercial activities in the Cayman Islands, Mr. VanDevelde said.
In the 20 years since, Dart has spent more than US$800 million in developing the Camana Bay Town Centre, which presently consists of some 700,000 square feet of office, residential, retail and other commercial space. Over the next 10 to 15 years, Dart will spend another US$1.3 billion on a massive expansion of Camana Bay and other developments that will include a new five-star hotel and additional residential and commercial offerings, along with a major roads infrastructure project unlike anything ever done in the Cayman Islands.
Ground was broken on the first buildings in Camana Bay in April 2005 and the first businesses opened in December 2007, at the cusp of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Despite the economic uncertainty over the ensuing years, Dart continued to build out the Town Centre, adding Class A office buildings, more retail space, a school, parking garages and 63 furnished apartments for lease.
One thing that did not commence, partially because of the lack of market demand in the poor economy and partially because of the unresolved George Town Landfill issue, was the construction of a variety of residential offerings for sale. That will change over the next couple of years as Dart plans to begin construction on more than 200 condominiums in various parts of Camana Bay, including some 60 units on top of new retail space it plans to build just north of the Town Centre.
The vision for Camana Bay was to create a mixed use, master-planned development that adopts the principles of New Urbanism – walkable neighborhoods with inclusive public open spaces where people can work, shop, dine, live, and enjoy themselves in an environment that reflects the Cayman Islands’ culture and environment. Ken Dart has always been the man behind that vision.
What has been built so far at Camana Bay displays a quality and attention to detail never seen before in the Cayman Islands. In a 2011 interview with Cayman Financial Review, Mr. VanDevelde noted that there are elements of Camana Bay that aren’t necessarily cost effective on a return-on-investment basis, but they’re there because Ken Dart wants them there and thinks they’re the right thing to do because they create inherent value for Camana Bay and for the Cayman Islands as a whole.
“We’re building something here that is expected to last in perpetuity for all intents and purposes, so there’s an idea of… wanting to do it right today,” Mr. VanDevelde said at the time, noting that the project is being built with a multi-generational viewpoint.
That means the goal is for Camana Bay to long outlive the 60-year-old Ken Dart himself. However, Mr. Dart continues and will continue to take a hands-on approach as long as he can. Mr. VanDevelde said he often receives emails and telephone calls from Mr. Dart concerning various aspects of Camana Bay, from large matters right down to lighting fixtures.
“He takes it very personally, and I know he’s very proud of it,” VanDevelde said, adding that Mr. Dart’s eagerness comes across in his constant “how-do-we-make-it-better,” “where-are-we-missing-a-beat” approach.
Constructing new development projects, like the planned resort village and five-star hotel, take time, with initial planning on those elements starting in 2013 and an expected opening in 2019.
“When you look at these five-or-six-year chunks of time… you quickly eat up decades,” Mr. VanDevelde said. “So he’s saying, well ‘I’m x-years old and if you look at these five-year slots of time, realistically, where’s Camana Bay going to be when I’m 80 years old and retired or no longer here, and he wants to see as much of that happen in his life, but thoughtfully – we’re not going to throw [a building] there just so it’s there.”
Mr. Dart, through his various companies, owns land in many other countries, including in the Caribbean. He also owns other significant land holdings throughout Grand Cayman’s five districts, some of which is developed, some of which is not. But none of his other property investments is as special to Mr. Dart as Camana Bay, Mr. VanDevelde said in the Cayman Financial Review interview.
“Camana Bay is unique to Ken,” he said. “We’re not pursuing this kind of stuff elsewhere. Other properties… those are financial investments… It’s all about ‘what’s the return?’; that’s not the case with Camana Bay.
“He’s willing to invest up front. It may not make financial sense up front, but he wants this message heard years down the road, and he wants this special place created… and that’s going to come with up-front thought and cost and attention to detail.”
Love of Nature
Ken Dart owns extensive lands around the world that he holds for conservation purposes, Mr. VanDevelde said.
“Our broader organization has . . . literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of acres in remote, pristine areas around the world for conservation purposes,” he said, noting that Dart uses some of the land to pursue his mountain biking passion. “These are remote, absolutely gorgeous, fantastic places, not to be developed, just to be preserved for recreational use and [because] that they’re just pristine places.”
Mr. Dart holds a lot of land on Grand Cayman for similar conservation purposes.
“There’s a thousand odd acres in the [Central Mangrove Wetland that] won’t be developed,” he said, adding that Mr. Dart has also worked with the National Trust for the Cayman Islands to acquire lands on their behalf or with them.
With no real legal structure to hold the lands Dart buys globally for conservation purposes, many people don’t know about it. However, Mr. VanDevelde admits that if they did, it might help alleviate some of the concerns people have about the “big, bad developer… and what’s he going to do next.”
Even at Camana Bay, Ken Dart’s love of nature is evident in the elaborate landscaping, which in some cases innovatively uses indigenous plants that weren’t traditionally used for landscaping purposes in Cayman.
Beyond its development and commercial activities, the Dart Group has donated money, venues and expertise to a variety of charitable causes in the Cayman Islands.
They’ve also sponsored several significant community enhancement projects, ranging from providing funding for the Field of Dreams facility and the Cayman Catboat Club building, to creating community parks in each of Grand Cayman’s five districts.
They have also taken the lead in some community initiatives, such as recycling.
“I think that we’ve been successful in having others recognize the positive contributions we make, whether they be development, whether it be, more recently… the focus on waste management [and] some of our… collection of recycling materials,” Mr. VanDevelde said. “I think we’re leading the way in that regard, and I think people see that and recognize the value of that. It’s not an approach to win anyone over; it’s just the right thing to do. It’s a good thing to do, and we have the resources to be able to start those initiatives.”
Dart’s community work crosses many sectors and over the past 20 years various Dart Group entities have contributed more than US$2.8 million to various charitable causes in the Cayman Islands.
“Whether it be the [Growing Communities] parks initiative, whether it be other types of philanthropic activities that we support in the community, people see that more so now than in the past as authentic,” he said.
Ken Dart loves the Cayman Islands, Mr. VanDevelde said.
It’s why he has remained steady in his conviction to develop Camana Bay and support the community in many philanthropic ways, while ignoring the naysayers.
He’s also become involved in a number of other commercial activities on Grand Cayman, including the purchase and renovation of what are now known as the Regatta Office Park, the Island Plaza, the Flagship Building and the Cayman Islands Yacht Club, the latter being part of the same lands bought with the property on which the Kimpton hotel is currently being built.
Dart also purchased several businesses, including the conglomerate of jewelry and other retail stores known as Island Companies, plus other wholesale and retail businesses. There have been other commercial activities as well, including a nursery, the Salt Creek subdivision, and in Camana Bay, two restaurants, a book store and a cinema complex.
As for those who vocally oppose Dart, for whatever reason, the advice Ken Dart gives his organization is “don’t get distracted,” Mr. VanDevelde said.
“He’s very . . . thick-skinned in that regard,” he added. “One of our values is reason and logic, and he’s a very logical person.”
When naysayers criticize the Dart Group’s activities, Mr. VanDevelde said Ken Dart’s approach is, “Don’t let the naysayers distract you from what you know is a good thing. Keep your eye on the ball, which could be decades out. We know we’re doing the right thing. We know we can do and deliver what we say we’re going to do. We’ve got great people in the organization and surround ourselves with really great advisors. We know what’s good; we 100 percent believe in it. He would pull you aside periodically and say, ‘take the high road, there’s no reason to respond to that; you’re not going to win a fight in the media, so don’t even attempt to do it.’”
Despite Hurricane Ivan, the global financial crisis, objectors and some standoffish previous governments, Mr. VanDevelde said Ken Dart remains bullish on Cayman, largely because he sees all the good building blocks that first attracted him to the islands still here, even if there are some real challenges.
“I think he sees… with the right partners, including government, around the table… we can fix the problems and make this a fantastic place, more so than it is already,” VanDevelde said.
Ken Dart could live anywhere in the world he wanted to, Mr. VanDevelde said, but he chooses Cayman because he loves it.
“There’s a reason he lives here and this is a family home,” he said. “If he had his druthers, all of his family would live here.”
Because his children live with their own families in different places around the world, Dart doesn’t spend all of his time in Cayman, but he is here often, Mr. VanDevelde said. Cayman is, after all, his global base of operations, even as he’s expanded his real estate holdings significantly in other places around the world in recent years, including some large acquisitions in the United States.
“When you look at application of capital outside [of Cayman], there will be more and more of that, but still with a Cayman base of operations,” VanDevelde said, adding that while the Dart Group will “have boots on the ground in a host of different locations,” the key global executive team will be based in the Cayman Islands.
“Decisions at the top level are made in Cayman in terms of deployment and strategic planning,” he said. “All of those connections come back to Cayman, so they’re getting their direction here, they’re getting the capital from here, and we’re allowed to grow an organization here.”