James Island native Richard Davis has looked at property differently since he was a 15-year-old summer worker who swept out houses on Seabrook and Kiawah islands. A chance conversation with a Charlotte developer changed his life.

“I saw how the other half lived,” said Davis, who gained national recognition in 2005 with the top-ranked Flip This House real estate show. “I remember asking a gentleman how in the world he could afford four stories on the ocean.”

The developer explained the house was his summer place and that he made most of his money in real estate, not just building homes.

“His advice to me was to own your real estate,” Davis recalled. And since then, he’s been a man on a mission — to look beyond the surface so he could figure out for himself the potential higher value of real estate. That way, he’d know what was really there, not just what most people assumed was there. A distressed house on a corner, for example, might be a neighborhood gateway.

First, Davis worked in the county assessor’s office during summers away from Clemson University. After graduating, he honed his teeth on valuations by working full-time in the office. By 1990, he opened a real estate company, Trademark Properties.

“My competitive advantage was knowing valuation and pure business brokerage,” said Davis, who lives on Seabrook Island today with his wife, Ginger.

In 2003, he came up with the idea for Flip This House, which he pitched fully-produced to three lifestyle networks the next year. It became a wildly popular “docu-soap” in 2005 that blended reality TV with the new business of investing in distressed properties and turning them into something more valuable. A version of the show continued on two other networks in two following years.

The premise of the show — and Davis’s business philosophy — was that it was smarter to buy something that had deteriorated and fix it up to its potential. On television, he showed others how to do it — and how to be financially successful with the upgrade.

“Why would you tear down trees and build new houses when there’s plenty of stuff out there?” he asked. “Let’s use the housing stock we’ve got. If you put some time and effort into it, you can come out better financially. And we’ve proven it stimulates the neighborhood. If one person does it, the next thing you know, other people are cutting the grass, people feel better, they’re painting the house, redoing the roof. By doing one house, you’re literally helping the entire community, not just one little street in one neighborhood.

Fast forward to 2017 and Citadel Mall in Charleston, which Davis has had his eyes on since 2009. He bought it with investors for something like $50 million to transform it into what’s now called Epic Center, a play on the word “epicenter.” He believes this hub at the intersection of Interstate 526 and Savannah Highway is the center of Charleston for the 21st century.

“To me, this is the ultimate way to fix a lot of problems in a community that were being caused by a distressed piece of real estate that was being hijacked and babysat by institutional money [people] who have never lived in Charleston,” Davis said. “Local ownership was needed to make a difference in the community in which we live.”

Already, Davis and his team have turned an old J.C. Penney’s store into a Medical University of South Carolina health campus. A former Sears now is an HBO production studio. Over time, the 1.2 million square feet of old-time retail space will become a vibrant live-work-play creative destination of more than 4 million square feet. Epic Center will include a team sports complex, offices, dorms, condos, hotels, shopping and affordable housing units to augment the anchor stores already in place thanks to Target, Dillard’s and Belk’s.

“The design character will be as a dense urban district with new opportunities for gathering spaces and better workability to the surrounding communities,” according to a just-approved memorandum of understanding with the city of Charleston. “The architectural character will be modern and a new network of streets and walking paths will be developed over time.”

Epic Center is going to turn a dead mall into a smart city. And it’s going to take off a lot of pressure to change downtown Charleston’s old homes into short-term dwellings because tourists will be able to rent AirBnb-like, swank accommodations at Epic Center.

“Downtown should be preserved,” Davis said. “A dead mall that is an eyesore and a drain in the community should be transformed, not preserved.”

And he’s just the guy to do it.

Andy Brack is publisher of the
Charleston City Paper.