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Sunday October 21st 2018

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The 2018 Power List—The Legend: James J. Reeves

By Rick Outzen

I’ve known James J. Reeves since I first moved to Pensacola in 1982. He was my “Mr. Sunshine,” the club’s official joke teller, when I served as president of the Gulf Breeze Rotary. Since I started Inweekly, we have been on opposite sides of various issues, but I’ve always enjoyed talking with him and hearing his yarns about Pensacola politics.

At the age of 80, he has plenty of yarns to share, so it was a treat to sit down in his Bayfront Parkway office, surrounded by memorabilia from his six decades in politics, drink Tab and listen to this year’s No. 1 on the Inweekly Power List.

“I got into politics the minute I got out of law school,” said Reeves. “I went into practice with J.D. Hopkins who told me that I needed to join the Jaycees. I ended up being the club’s president, and when I finished my term as president, I ran for the state legislature.”

He defeated an entrenched politician, Escambia County School Board Member Dean Belcher, in 1966. Though he ran as a Democrat, Reeves had advertising executive Pat Dodson and five other Republicans work on his campaign. He was elected on the campaign promise to create the Historic Pensacola Preservation Board.

State Senator Reubin Askew told Reeves that the bill would be difficult to pass, and even if both chambers passed it, Republican Gov. Claude Kirk would veto it.

“Well I got HB 153 passed in the House, and I went down to the Senate and said, ‘Reubin, I got that bill passed 118 to 1. You know the bill you told me I wasn’t going to get passed?’” said Reeves.

Senator Askew was surprised that the freshman state representative got the bill passed. Reeves remembered, “He came back the next day and said it passed the Senate 38 to 0. You know he was so proud that he had gotten a unanimous vote and I had one vote against it.”

Askew still insisted that the Gov. Kirk would veto the bill, but Reeves had an ace-in-the-hole. Reeves said, “The governor didn’t veto it because my campaign manager was Pat Dodson, a Republican that he had appointed as assistant secretary to the Department of Corrections.”

In 1972, Reeves was reapportioned out office when his district was split with Santa Rosa County. He said, “I wasn’t going to run against Ed Fortune, so I retired after six years. I always say, ‘I never got tired of kissing babies, but I didn’t enjoy kissing the other end.’”

In 1977, Reeves ran for Pensacola City Council. All the council seats were at-large seats. A group of citizens led by Mutual Federal president E.W. Hopkins asked him to run against the city’s airport manager.

“I won by 44 votes, so they bought me a T-shirt, the same group that got me to run, that said, ‘Landslide 44 votes,” laughed Reeves.

He served six years on the council and was once again forced out by reapportionment. A federal judge ordered the city to create single-member districts. The court approved seven single-member districts and three at-large seats.  Reeves ran for one of the single-member seats and lost.

Banker & Real Estate Tycoon
Over the years, Reeves chartered or bought six banks—”two federal savings and loan,  three banks and one bank that we took over, Liberty Bank, that became Whitney Bank and then Hancock Bank.”

Why?  He said, “Nobody admits this, but the reason to charter a bank is like somebody said, ‘Why do you rob banks?” And I said, “Well that’s where the money is.’”

Reeves continued. “If you’ve got a good customer base, that’s also a power base. That’s an aspect, but what they won’t tell you is when you charter a little independent bank, all you’re doing is betting that some big fish is going to buy it. That’s when you get paid off.”

In 1969, Reeves built the Mai Kai Motel. He named its bar “The Sandshaker.” The problem was he didn’t know how to run a bar. He hired Linda Taylor away from the Howard Johnson Motel and worked out an installment plan for her to eventually buy him out.

“I never could make any money there,” he said. “I had to hire bartenders. They wanted to show their tits for tips; it was just a big headache.”

Reeves also built the Tiki Motel and the Howard Johnson, the first franchise motel on Pensacola Beach. He had the majority share of a real estate investment group that owned the Barbary Coast and six hundred acres on the Gulf and another six hundred on the Sound. His partners bought him out for $1.1 million and ran the properties.

“They lasted four years, and everything got foreclosed on,” said Reeves. “I bought two of the pieces back. I’ll never forget I left my little bookkeeper over there and asked about the half million dollars’ worth of CD’s the company once had. She said they wouldn’t know a CD if it hit them right in the ass.”

He has since sold all the properties, except for the site for his Pensacola Beach RV Resort.

In the 1960s, Reeves put together a group that bought half of Perdido Key. He said, “Sikes was the congressman, and ultimately the federal government bought that from us.  I’ll never forget I got a $600,000 check in the early ’70s. Now that would get you on your way.”

In the late 1990s, he partnered with his daughter, architect Michelle MacNeil, to create well-built, low-income housing in Pensacola. The state of Florida had the State Apartment Incentive Loan program (SAIL) that provided low-interest loans on a competitive basis to affordable housing developers each year.

“When we applied for that, we came out number one in the state of Florida, because we placed all our duplexes on scattered sites,” he said. “Instead of building a ghetto, you had people living in neighborhoods.”

He said, “Here we are 27 years later, and they’re still in good shape. The design of them is just the 360-degree opposite of Habitat for Humanity. It’s got some style to it. All of them are still in existence.”

Since then, he and his daughter have built more units. The last project was six buildings for elderly housing in Myrtle Grove.

“They had come to me and said, ‘We had this contractor, and he’s gone broke on us.’ So I had to buy the son of bitches at a foreclosure sale, which was a big risk for me because they said ‘Now if you get them, we’ll fund it.’ We did that, and for 22 years I’ve got to keep them for the elderly. At 80, I ain’t gonna worry about it,” he laughed.

When he asked what is the most significant difference in the city of Pensacola today from when he served on the Pensacola City Council, Reeves didn’t hesitate.

“A lot of people will tell you that so and so did it,” he told Inweekly. “Quint Studer has been the absolute catalyst.”

He continued, “Number one he’s not a little risk taker. He’s a big risk taker, and all that does is create the cataclysm for other people to step up and do.”

That’s high praise from a man who has also done his fair share of risk-taking and getting others to step up.