The Developers - John Wessman



John Wessman (right) discusses progress on the soon-to-be-opened Rusty Pelican restaurant in Palm Desert with owner Pete Siracusa.

Republished from May 1980 Palm Springs Life Magazine

In 1969 the Coachella Valley was a relatively quiet, sleepy place, a hideaway, really just a winter retreat for the more affluent. And then the gospel about desert living hit the streets and all hell broke loose. As sudden as a summer storm, condominiums and country clubs began sprouting everywhere and the valley was in the throes of a growth boom that seemed would last forever.

Who were the prime movers and shakers behind this boom? Mainly men who came from here and there and all professions who, in order to survive, had to be part prophet and part gambler, be prepared to work impossible hours, have thick hides and nerves of steel. These were the developers.

A visit to five of them tells what they think of today's economic crunch and tomorrow's Coachella Valley. Ironically, some of them liked it better in 1969.

John Wessman:
Planning Ahead...

John Wessman, his face having been scorched by the Cabo San Lucas sun, heaves a pair of lanky legs onto a cluttered desk and muses, "I go away for a week and I can't find my desk when I get back."

It's hard finding walls either. They're a casserole of design concepts for industrial plazas, office blocks, restaurants, condominiums and housing projects — all two-dimensional game plans for the once and future dreams of one of the valley's "successful young builder" stories.

Wessman, 40, came to the desert in 1960 from "across the mountains" (Hemet) where he worked for contractors "on and off" from the time he was 10 years old. He began his Coachella Valley building career as an employee with Warren Coble and Arthur Press. In 1964 he bought into the corporation and one year later he bought out Press.

The Coble-Wessman partnership lasted until 1972 when Wessman decided to head out on his own to put into effect some very definite ideas he has about building, development and investment.

When he talks about these, his favorite subjects, the words and sentences tumble out rapidly, a staccato oration in development philosophy: "I don't build to sell. I build for you. I build for John Doe. And I build for myself — buildings I intend to keep. I've always found, from an investment point of view, that I make more money from keeping property than I do by building and selling."

He still owns the first building he put up "for himself," as well as a number of others. Some he owns outright; others in joint arrangements.

"If you build 100 houses a year and sell them for a profit of $10,000 on each, you pay income taxes on a million dollars that year. If you build a million dollars of equity into commercial buildings you don't sell, you create an income bank from rental so you don't have to worry about where your money's coming from tomorrow."

When talking about his projects, Wessman continually stresses the importance of quality and good maintenance: "Look at the Chart House restaurant — it'll look good 100 years from now. It really doesn't cost all that much more to do a quality job. What it takes is better land planning, a better architect and somebody who really cares about quality. Building with quality will pay off for you tenfold down the road."

He makes a point of selecting people with whom to work who share these feelings. "I've got good people working for me — people who are interested in quality. I've got people who are better than I am — and that's what you've got to have."

The company has grown from an annual workload of $4 to $5 million to $25 million in 1979. The yearly slate includes an equal percentage of residential and commercial projects, with attractive low-density units like Mission Hills Country Club typical of the housing construction and the classically-styled, newly-completed medical center across from Desert Hospital typical of the commercial development.

He has a number of projects on the go such as the Rusty Pelican restaurant just outside Palm Desert, but many more wait in the wings "when the timing is right."

Wessman sees the current economic crunch as severe but predictable: "I think any developer who has been around for a while knows that we're going to have ups and downs in the construction business. I thought it was going to happen before it did."

When the market turns around, Wessman will be ready to spring into action. "A good developer will do all his planning right now, get all his architecture, all his engineering and all his city and county approvals ready to hit the market when it's ripe again."

Wessman, the whirling dervish of the desert building world, will certainly be ready. "I have this 63-acre parcel of land around the Midway Center and 25 acres on South Palm Canyon and a 136-unit project all Teady to go ..."

As his longtime secretary, Janice Bond, said with great affection, "I've worked for John so long, I wouldn't know what it was like to work for someone normal."

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