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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Feb. 3, 201012:00 PM EST

A conversation with John Rood

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Most people know John Rood as chairman of Vestcor Companies, Inc. and JDR Companies, Inc. That’s because he began his career in real estate development when he founded Vestcor in 1983 with a dream and determination.

Since then he’s managed more than 50 investment partnerships which have acquired or developed more than 40 communities comprising more than 10,000 residential units.

He has also served on numerous local boards as well as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Advisory Council on Renewal Communities. Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Rood finance chairman of the Republican Party of Florida in 2009 and recently also appointed him to the Florida Board of Regents.

Along the way he has also been involved in high-profile political campaigns, appointed U.S. Ambassador to the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, emerged as one of Downtown’s most passionate advocates and even dabbled in raising livestock.

Rood sat down Tuesday with the editorial staff at the Daily Record to discuss some of those and several other topics.

How did you get into commercial real estate?

I got married in 1979 and decided I could travel to Minneapolis and get into business or move to Steamboat Springs, Colo. and open a bicycle shop with a buddy of mine. I decided to move to Minneapolis and go into business. My buddy is still not gray headed and he’s still selling bikes. He lived in a tree house for 10 years.

After two years of working for others, I decided it was not in my blood. I bought a house and fixed it up and sold it. I bought another and sold it. In Minneapolis in March, it’s still snowing and it’s freezing. Here, the azaleas are blooming.

I moved back and got into real estate. I had to be a resident for six months before I could get my license, so I did maintenance at an apartment complex until I could get my license. Then I started selling investment homes and duplexes. I bought one and then another and I sold a small apartment complex.

I would watch how they were maintained and managed and look at the plans see a better way to do it and a better design for the exterior.

In 1983, I started the Vestcor Companies, which is short for Investment Corporation.

What was the lure of Downtown?

When I was active in the (Jacksonville Regional) Chamber (of Commerce) a visit to Denver stood out (because of its downtown). In 11E, we had a gem of a building and I thought it would really be a shame not to do something with it. I wanted to make a statement. I wanted to contribute to the start of something big Downtown. I had 11E under contract and the financing package that made sense.

It’s been very rewarding.

I enjoy meeting the residents at the socials who live Downtown. It’s neat. I wish (Orlando developer) Cameron Kuhn would have worked and I hope The Library (Bill Cesery’s development of the old Main Library) is successful. Compared to other downtowns, we have so much going on. There are neat things that ought to be here and and we should be able to support a downtown.

I’m hoping that those of us who realize how important a strong Downtown is will start rallying again and we can build some more momentum... if we don’t rally, and if people don’t want to live Downtown, don’t want to work Downtown, I think it would be disastrous for the city.

How do you get that message out?

I think you all in the media articulate it well. I think those of us who have a vested interest in Downtown need to speak louder. I am probably guilty, as when I left and spent three years in the Bahamas, no one in my company really had the passion for Downtown. They weren’t part of the original vision. So we didn’t speak as loudly as we should.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve been focused on 11E and The Carling and what I thought were management issues. Now I’m working on market issues and being more articulate about what we need to see. I take pictures of trash and I see it gets to the mayor’s office when things aren’t looking like they should. When there’s code issues, I send that out. When there are other issues I bring it to others’ attention. I think if we all did that, if all the restaurant owners and all the people who own residential and commercial Downtown became advocates we could ... the mayor would realize their support.

I do believe the mayor cares about a strong, vibrant Downtown. The thing is, when you’re having to develop priorities, which is more of a priority? Is a strong Downtown more important than early learning centers? They both cost money and that’s the challenge we face right now.

What happens when you notify the City of garbage and other code violations and issues?

I don’t get ignored. In New York City, you don’t see garbage cans on Fifth Avenue in the middle of the day. It’s not acceptable. Here, it is.

I am not bothered by the people of Downtown. It’s a melting pot. But, residents need to be comfortable going to restaurants at night. I am aware at night and I am not fearful.

There are three things we could do: one, make it clean and code enforcement could be better; two, we need consistent law enforcement. During special events, there is plenty of law enforcement, but otherwise it comes and it goes. Three, we need activities. That will take care of itself if we deal with the first two.

How did you get the appointment as Ambassador to the Bahamas?

You have to have a personal relationship with the president (of the United States). Some went to class with him at Yale, others knew him through political connections or they met him through their job and got to know him.

Second, you have to be involved in the grassroots effort of the campaign — making calls, raising money.

Three, you have to have history of civil involvement and management and leadership experience.

If you want the job for the title, you are not going to get it. These are leadership and management positions.

I have been going to the Bahamas since I was 9 years old to visit West End with my parents. Between high school and my freshman year of college, I worked in West End. I have a real love of the Bahamas and it’s where I wanted to be.

When you were U.S. Ambassador to the Bahamas, one of your initiatives was education and you visited 55 schools while you were there. What are the differences between education there and in the United States?

Students in the Bahamas aren’t exposed to TV or video games. Most have two parents at home. They don’t realize they are impoverished because they have never been bailed up. Here we have a welfare system that bails people up.

There are also differences because of their religious upbringing. In churches they have the opportunity to hear people speak. In school, students are put up in front of the class a lot. Most of them do not have the fear of public speaking that so many students here have.

Based on your experience in Caribbean political relations, what does the United States need to do for Haiti?

I spent a lot of time working on Haiti when I was down there. The most important thing when I was there was to get the government to provide training, aid and support for security. If they don’t have security they can’t get investment. We would lend diplomatic security personnel to Haiti during their elections and our people were just shocked. It was chaos.

We’ve also got to get all of the Caribbean countries engaged because we don’t want to always look like the Americans who come in and impose our values on another country. That will continue to be very important.

The Haitians will also need aid programs to rebuild public buildings and infrastructure. The magnitude of the problem is so huge and it’s many countries providing support. We can’t do a little bit and then walk away. That would create a vacuum that might be filled by countries that aren’t as aligned to our values. The Haitians are capable of being free and being prosperous. They are hardworking people. We need to give them the opportunity to turn their country around.

What’s the one thing you took from that experience?

How important it is to be yourself when you represent your country and the difference that makes in the relationship between the countries. I was respectful of the Bahamian culture, which helped bring it closer to the United States.

Is there another ambassadorship in your future?

I really enjoyed it. When I left after almost three years, I had missed my family and friends and it was time to get back to Jacksonville.

It depends on what happens in future presidential elections. I clearly am going to get involved at the national level.

You’ll be wearing a new hat soon, as Gov. Charlie Crist just appointed you to the Board of Governors for the state’s university system. Why and what appeals to you about the position?

Education is always something I’ve been interested in. Higher education is a little bit different... I participated in the Business Advisory Board at UNF (University of North Florida) and also had a chance to do some work with the visiting professor program. What got me interested in the board of regents was the fact that last year, the legislature has delegated more authority to the board of regents ... one of the things they’re now dealing with is, I believe, setting tuition, and I think you’re going to see the board have a very important role. Higher education is extremely important in this state.

What first got my attention was a dinner I went to with Meg Whitman and she talked about how California used to be one of the tops in the country in education and they’ve neglected it and it’s become one of the bottom in the country. She pointed to Florida, which used to be one of the bottom and is now near the top. Now, higher education in California they’ve been able to keep near the top. Even though I see a lot of issues in the educational system, I see huge potential. We need to pay attention to higher education in Florida and not let it slip. It’s incredibly important for job growth, for our economy, for our quality of life, for our type of people who are attracted to the state for research. I’m ready to do something else and I think it’s going to be exciting.

You’re on the board of directors at the Tiger Academy, a school in northwest Jacksonville that serves at-risk students and you’re on the advisory board of Teach for America. What are those programs doing to improve education and students’ chances for success?

One of the key components of an education at Tiger Academy is parental involvement. Parents have to commit to become involved. It creates a challenge to find enough children whose parents are committed.

Ever since I was involved with (former Gov.) Jeb Bush and his charter school in Liberty City in Miami, I had a dream of sponsoring a charter school. The board (at Tiger Academy) takes a lot of ownership in the school and it’s that pride that makes it successful. We’re committed to helping the students progress through elementary school, then middle school, then high school and into college. We have high expectations.

Kids have such potential. What we have to do is open the door for that potential and shield them from things that take away from that potential.

Teach for America is an interesting concept. It’s a place where bright college graduates with an interest in teaching can learn how to teach. The goal is to get the kids to serve at least two years in the classroom and they only teach in struggling schools. Their goal is to create the right environment and teach more than one year of education in a year.

I’ve always felt the military brings a lot of great people to Jacksonville who end up staying here and contributing to the community. Teach for America is bringing in great young people who are going to stay and contribute to the community. Even if only 10 percent stay, we’re adding to the genetics.

Is there anything in the upcoming legislative session or local politics that’s piquing your interest?

I don’t have any issues in the legislature. I’m going to be very interested to see how this economic situation is dealt with. We, along with many other states, are facing huge challenges. I mentioned the dinner I had with Meg Whitman ... the challenges they’re facing in California are just unbelievable. They’ve got this huge exodus of people that pay taxes — companies and individuals. Luckily we don’t have that type of exodus. I know the governor is working very hard to make sure we have the revenues as well as right-size our government but I don’t know how much longer we can right-size. I think our cost per citizen is like 48th in country. I believe recent governors as well as the legislature have done a good job getting rid of the fat, but where do you go?

Do you have Pres. Bush’s cell phone number?

No.

When is the last time you talked to him?

Within the last couple of months.

What did you two talk about?

We are working together on his library and something I can’t say. He’ll be here soon. He loves Jacksonville and hopes to come back soon. But, I do have Mitt Romney’s cell phone number.

What’s next for John Rood?

I used to raise white-tailed deer but they are very high-strung animals and it also became a challenge with poachers. Now I have a place in Georgia where I hunt and raise black angus grass-fed cattle. It started with my interest in raising high-quality beef without growth hormones or antibiotics. I’ve sold my first two steers and I have a waiting list for next year. That’s my new business and a way to get out of real estate. Now I can really lose money (laughs).

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