Milt Peterson: 50 Years and 120 Projects
This week, Milt Peterson celebrates 50 years of the company he started in 1965. “When you start from nothing, it’s so hard, but fun, to grow,” he told us yesterday from his vacation home in Maine.
Milt, the guy on the far left in the photo, surveying a future development site, knew he was going to be in real estate when he was in high school. He helped his father fix up the old houses he would buy and move the family into before flipping them and doing it again. “I learned a little bit of electrical, a little plumbing, learned how to use a saw,” he says. “I did enough so I knew that I liked it.” He bought his first property while he was a junior at Middlebury College, followed by five lots in his senior year before joining the Army Corps of Engineers. Even when he formed his own company, he said he couldn’t imagine turning into one of the region’s largest developers. “I never had capital,” he says. “We always owned everything and were really constrained with capital because I never wanted some 26-year-old Harvard MBA telling me what to do.”
Instead, Milt goes with his gut on most of his projects. He says he’s famous for “playing 52 pickup,” meaning changing plans for major developments to respond to the market. Owning the land enables him to do that, and specializing in vision (he was never one for organizational skills) helped him pull off massive projects like Fair Lakes and Downtown Silver Spring. And no one knows better what it’s like to take a big risk and swing and miss. National Harbor (above) opened in 2008 and 75% of the commitments Peterson had for condo sales fell through. “We lost our shirts,” he says. But after years of resisting gambling, Milt says the MGM Resort is going to give National Harbor a second life. “MGM is spending $1.4B to open its resort,” he says. “They’re going to bring in lots and lots of people with money in their pocket.” The resort is expected to open next year.
Milt has developed more than 24,000 residential lots and 34M SF of hotel and commercial real estate, including some of the premier housing developments in Northern Virginia. Peterson still owns thousands of acres across the region and all that land has the potential for 7,000 residential units, 4.5M SF of retail and 6M SF of office and industrial space.
Milt is almost 80 now, but is coy when he’s asked about the future of his company. His son, Jon, is a principal and Jon’s childhood friend Taylor Chess is president of retail (that's Jon and Taylor as teenagers in front of the PRC building in Tysons). In fact, Milt says Taylor “is the visionary in the company now, more so than I.” Taylor spoke at our Loudoun County Boom! event last week about one of the things Peterson has done better than anyone else in the region: placemaking. That’s what has made retail in Loudoun such a tough nut to crack, he says. “We don’t have a lot of places out here. Providing a cool sense of place will drive businesses here.”
Taylor, Jon and Milt seem like they’re off to a pretty good start. The flagship TopGolf location is in a soft opening right now (the grand opening is Thursday), and early reviews are as promising as can be. TopGolf will pair with iFly, an indoor skydiving venue, to make Peterson’s Commonwealth Center, across the street from Redskins Park and Miller & Smith's One Loudoun, one of Loudoun’s true “places.” Another, Avonlea Town Center on Route 50, will have the region’s first Cinépolis. Among Milt's favorite quotes: “Do the deals you should, not the deals you can.”