The long pass

John Dewberry has grand plans for Midtown, but his timeline remains elusive.

By Matt Kempner | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

He couldn’t shake it. He, John Dewberry, lost.

Even at 8 years old he knew how to view second place: first among losers.

He was athletic, and he knew how to tussle. He’d powered through football knockabouts in his parents’ suburban Virginia yard. But he was new to team swimming at the neighborhood pool. New, in fact, to any organized sport and its hierarchy of winning.

Mom had resisted such brutish pursuits for him and his older brother. She’d steered her boys to excel at floral arranging instead — even signed them up for contests through 4H.

How we got the story

While interviewing John Dewberry for the AJC’s Secrets of Success column on entrepreneurs, business reporter Matt Kempner realized he had inadvertently stepped into something more: Dewberry’s Personal Journey. To report this story, Kempner accompanied Dewberry in his Gulfstream jet to Charleston, S.C., to tour The Dewberry hotel under construction and attend a party at his exquisitely restored home. He also ran wind sprints on a chilly Sullivan’s Island beach with “the Dew” and his charming girlfriend. Along the way, Kempner interviewed Dewberry’s comrades, employees and critics. He researched Dewberry’s history around the Southeast, read the NTSB file on his plane crash and scanned a bit of Thomas Paine, the Revolutionary War-era author and a favorite of the Dew. The result is a fascinating look at a man who believes fervently that there’s only one way to do anything: his way.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor

Once freed to swim competitively, he did well the first couple meets. Then, from across town, came a big kid, a fast one. Dewberry was introduced to defeat.

That evening, he was moping around the house dejected when his father, a former boxer with a competitive streak, found him.

You want to win? he asked his young son.

Yes, the child replied.

The father laid out a plan: Run two miles each morning. Go to summer swim practice. Run another three miles each evening.

Every day the son ran back and forth to his elementary school while the father rode his bicycle alongside. Eventually, the boy swam against the big, fast kid again. This time, he won easily in all but one event.

Why do you think you won? the father asked.

Now, nearly 44 years later, Dewberry’s voice uncharacteristically softens, echoing that of an 8-year-old boy. “I think, Daddy, I felt like I deserved to win because I had worked so hard.”

The lesson became an unshakable truth: Confidence and hard work make winners.

“Squeezing out insecurity in your mind is why you win or lose in the clutch,” Dewberry says.

It’s a lesson that has driven him to success as a renegade quarterback at Georgia Tech and as a real estate developer who claims to own more undeveloped land along Peachtree Street in Midtown than anyone else “in the world.” It’s made him believe he is the guy to take charge. At 51, he knows this with certainty: He’s the one to reshape the skyline and streetscape of Midtown Atlanta. No matter how long it takes him.

John Dewberry through the years

  • Following Tech’s victory over Georgia in 1984, Dewberry clutches a piece of the hedge that surrounds the playing field at Sanford Stadium in Athens and embraces Tech coach Bill Curry. At right, Dewberry gives the No. 1 sign after trouncing Wake Forest in 1985. Michael Pugh, Associated Press/AJC file
  • Dewberry stands in front of Peachtree Pointe in 2002. AJC file
  • Dewberry in his office in 2009, with his trusty companion, Georgia, his German short-haired pointer. AJC file
  • Dewberry was traveling to Macon when his Beechjet 400 hydroplaned during a landing in 2012. NTSB
  • Dewberry stands in front of the Peachtree Pointe building as it is under construction in 1999. John Spink,
  • Dewberry in his Midtown office with Georgia in 2006. Ben Gray,
  • Dewberry (left) and brother Douglas Dewberry, a CPA at Dewberry Capital, stroll along Peachtree Street in Midtown. The developer has plans to build office and residential towers, a hotel and high-end retail shops in the area. Ben Gray,
  • John Dewberry during a stroll through Midtown. Ben Gray,


Quarterback or nothing

He should have been living the dream.

The former quarterback at Milton High School had been recruited to the Bulldog Nation in 1981. At the University of Georgia in the early 1980s, football players were campus princes, the co-eds were beautiful and the course load for athletes was easy. Fresh from a national championship steamrolled by running back Herschel Walker, Georgia was gridiron heaven.

But Dewberry struggled. The guy with the big ego was, by his own measure, “playing awful. My confidence was shot.”

He was no longer in line to be quarterback. Coaches were thinking of him for another slot, possibly a defensive back who shadows the wide receivers. That would make him a follower, not a leader.

It probably shouldn’t have come as a shock. Dewberry had plenty of flaws. He was a bit too short to be quarterback. His passing motion was more a sling than a throw. His arm strength was sub par.

But in Dewberry’s mind, you have to know what your potential is, and he knew he was the quarterback.

Such convictions probably are common to athletes nurtured to believe they can win. What isn’t common — what is in fact stunning and, to some Bulldogs at the time, heretical — is what Dewberry did after his freshman year.

He transferred from Georgia to Georgia Tech.

To clarify, that’s Georgia Tech, which had gone 1-10 the year before. The very Rambling Wreck that a national magazine named one of the nation’s 10 worst college football programs.

Before making the move, Dewberry sought his father’s advice. Gary Dewberry had always favored Georgia Tech for his son.

“Most people sit and moan and complain. He took action,” said Bill Curry, Tech’s coach at the time.

The transfer came at a price. He had to sit out games for a full year.

But he could practice. While working out with Tech’s scout team one day, Dewberry drove the squad to the 10-yard line against Tech’s first team defense. His underdog linemen were overjoyed and whooping before the next play.

You all shut up! Dewberry told his teammates. I’m sorry before I came you could never move the ball across the 50-yard line.

Getting within 10 yards of a touchdown was no better than getting stopped on the 50. He pointed to the end zone.

The goal is to win, not try hard and be happy with almost.

It took lots of training to get Dewberry’s throwing to be adequate, in Curry’s view. His young quarterback wasn’t as good as he thought he was. But Dewberry had an intuitive vision for how to win and an uncanny ability to overcome his shortcomings. Curry recalled hearing Tech coaching legend Bobby Dodd once say of Dewberry: The son of gun is playing better than he is.

In huddles, Dewberry was known to yank the face mask of anyone he thought was slacking off. And he substituted his own plays for ones called by coaches, at least until Curry threatened to pull him from the position.

Dewberry was named all-conference quarterback. Tech had winning records in two of his three seasons. Twice they beat UGA, including once when photographers snapped him hugging Curry while holding a sprig from Georgia’s revered stadium hedges.

So as he neared graduation, it came as a shock when his father gave him the cold truth. He wasn’t good enough for a career in the pros.

Trust me, his father said: You will be far better at business than you ever were as an athlete.

Dewberry (right) and his father, Gary Dewberry, sit in the president’s box at Bobby Dodd Stadium during a game against Troy in 2006. AJC file


His father's son

Today, Dewberry’s old football trophies and mementos are stashed out of sight. You won’t find them in his carefully restored Charleston, S.C., home built in 1772 on one of the city’s most historic streets. Nor in his Reid House condo on Peachtree Street.

He’s moved on. Except that he hasn’t. In rambling conversations — his thoughts juking like a quarterback scrambling to avoid a sack — he peppers his speech with quotes from Thoreau, Calvin Coolidge, Muhammad Ali and the Bible, while professing a spiritual kinship with Thomas Jefferson and his ability to design remarkable buildings. But the guiding statements he cites most often are the ones realized in and around huddles.

He inevitably mentions someone’s football pedigree if he can find a way to bring up a former player in conversation. Football lessons bubble out of him as metaphors for life. Friends enjoy chiding him about this: John, try to be a little more multidimensional.

Which is funny, because he is. A lifelong bachelor, at least so far, Dewberry studies art, owns race horses in Ireland, plays golf, hunts quail, travels the world and climbs — well, climbed in younger, healthier days — tall mountains. At a recent patio party he hosted at his Charleston home, he wore a gentleman’s green hunting suit with padding for where he would prop a shotgun. He puffed on a cigar, cradled a Bloody Mary and invited visiting friends and neighbors upstairs to see “maybe the best smoking room in America,” the giant tub he has planted smack in the center of his bathroom or the rooftop patio where he and his girlfriend, nearly half his age, watched bridal parties spilling out of the First (Scots) Presbyterian Church across the street below.

Dewberry’s will to succeed — a friend and former CEO of AT&T calls him the most driven man he’s ever met — comes in large part from his late father, who he calls “a prince, a king.”

Gary Dewberry was a competitive boxer as a young man. He preached at a Baptist church later in life and was promoted up the executive ranks in the contract food service industry. He divorced Dewberry’s mother when John was 11. John, his older brother and sister stayed with their dad. They had a mostly comfortable middle-class lifestyle in suburbs outside Boston and D.C., where they had a small farm, before moving to north Fulton in time for John to start high school.

Dewberry recalls as a young boy watching his father fail an attempt to jump a horse over an impossibly high obstacle. The elder Dewberry landed on the ground, briefly knocked out. His leg was torn up. His collarbone, he would later learn, was broken.

The father carefully stood and shook his pain off. We’ll have to walk the horses the 3 miles home, he told his son. The lesson was clear: No whining. You suck it up and find a way.

Once Dewberry began playing high school football, his father rarely missed a game. Or missed an opportunity to help his son see the bigger picture.

He left a poem by Thoreau on his son’s bed about following a different drummer. He gave his son a copy of “Pyramid of Success,” a motivational book by legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden that defines the steps to “competitive greatness.”

At 12 years old, Dewberry started keeping personal goal books, which he still updates annually. Over the years pages for academic and athletic achievement morphed into space for career goals. There’s a spiritual section, too. He keeps most of the particulars private. That’s for him.

It was while he accompanied his father on rounds of the cafeterias he managed in downtown office buildings that Dewberry first became captivated with towering high-rises.

Currently under construction is the first in Dewberry’s luxury hotel chain, located in a former federal building in Charleston, S.C. Matt Kempner /


A developer is born

Dewberry’s professional football career lived and died within four weeks.

He finished Tech with an industrial management degree and a contract to play with the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders. A month later he was home with a torn hamstring and a $5,000 signing bonus.

Georgia Tech is known for graduating engineers, but it also produced former football players who became successful developers. Dewberry talked his way into a job with one of them, former quarterback Kim King. Dewberry worked with him long enough to get this crucial advice from King: Go learn finance; most developers don’t understand it.

So Dewberry got a job in banking, helping Southern developers convert temporary construction loans into permanent financing. It doesn’t sound sexy, because it isn’t. But he learned the development game’s fundamentals. By 1989, he took what little cash he had and launched a one-man company he named hopefully: Dewberry Capital.

He started with small projects in hopes of working up to really great ones. It meant jumping into the fray.

Most of us don’t contemplate how shopping centers sprout on lots that seem to sit vacant forever except for “Coming Soon” signs. Unseen is a sometimes cutthroat melee among young guns in the retail development business.

You hunt for a good site near the customers your target retailers want. You cajole landowners to give you an affordable option to eventually buy the land. You convince them to ignore all the other developers gunning for the same site. And then you hope the kingmakers — the anchor grocery stores, the big chain restaurants and retailers — will deign to look at your lot, consider the area’s potential and sign on. Then pray you find a lender willing to give you millions of dollars to build the thing.

Dewberry was 25 when he made his first real estate touchdown: a $4 million shopping center anchored by a Bi-Lo grocery near Charleston. He followed up with a string of other suburban shopping centers. His older brother, Douglas, a CPA, joined the business. But the younger Dewberry was always the quarterback and the firm’s owner.

Starting in the late ’90s, Dewberry still didn’t have the money to build something truly great — like a marquee high-rise — but he could at least buy and hold property with big potential. He acquired the closed Azalea Mall in a sagging area of Richmond, Va., and razed it for future development. He bought a mall in Jacksonville, Fla., and dissected into an open-air shopping center.

And he dreamed of doing something grand along Peachtree Street. While many other developers were prepping for the 1996 Summer Olympics with projects in downtown Atlanta, Dewberry was hunting property in what was then a more edgy Midtown.

So far he’s built some suburban shopping centers, erected some apartments and developed two office buildings that, while handsome enough, don’t come close to dominating the Atlanta skyline.

Interactive map

Click above to view our interactive map of John Dewberry's Midtown Atlanta holdings and his plans for those properties.

As a developer in a city full of them, Dewberry is best known not for what he has built but for what he says he will build: a string of office and residential towers, a hotel and luxury shops that he believes will make Midtown a beacon for the city and a magnet for vibrant street life.

If that seems brash — and, of course, it does — it helps to know that Dewberry owns enough Midtown property to build perhaps 15 to 20 high-rises that could conceivably remake Atlanta’s skyline. It also helps to know that Dewberry has made such lofty promises for nearly two decades.

That’s when he bought land along Peachtree Street south of where it crosses I-85, an area he confidently markets as “Uptown.” It’s the only site he’s built on Peachtree, putting up two office buildings — one 17 stories high.

But mostly, he has waited.

He has proposed a tower on the site of an Exxon station on Peachtree that would include a hotel. But his masterpiece he envisions a few blocks south on Peachtree at 10th Street — a project called Midtown Square that would have as much space as two or three malls, much of it high in the sky.

For now, the site is mostly a street-level parking lot.

Dewberry says he could have sold some of his land at a great profit if he wanted to. He had $70 million waved at him for one site but didn’t bite. He’s waiting. For Midtown to get more people. For a giant tenant who will agree to anchor his office plans. He’s in no rush. The Peachtree property generates enough money from parking and such to mostly cover its carrying costs, he says.

“What I’m trying to do is not about money,” Dewberry says. “It is about ... my goal to create a livable, walkable Peachtree Street.” He imagines something like Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

There have been rumblings of impatience and frustration here and elsewhere — around the former Richmond mall site and two promised luxury hotels, one beside a historic square in Charleston, the other along an outdoor promenade in Charlottesville, Va.

The quarterback offers no apology. He won’t play the game until he’s ready to.

He has stuck to a strategy increasingly rare among developers: developing projects and holding on to them for long-term value. Many other developers would pair up with bigger investors, settle for a smaller ownership stake in a project and sell as soon as the building is sufficiently leased.

The distinction is important. If you’re holding a property for the long-term, you have potentially more risk and more gain. You are making a bigger bet on yourself.

As Dewberry preaches, there are two ways to get rich: Buy a lottery ticket or double down on yourself when times are bad.

During the last recession, other developers held onto their money, but Dewberry went on a buying spree. He outbid bigger investors for the Campanile building (the former BellSouth headquarters at Peachtree and 14th streets), acquired land at Peachtree and 17th streets, and snagged a 1960s era federal office building beside Marion Square in Charleston.

The spending, combined with resistance from lenders, made his finances thinner than he liked. A Wyndham hotel building he owned in Midtown sagged in value and ended up back in the lender’s control. It took far longer than he expected to complete the luxury hotel in Charleston that he plans to call “The Dewberry,” one of a new chain he has been trying to launch.

Seven years ago The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that he said he would have 10 hotels in the chain opened within a decade. Dewberry now says that was never his timeline. His first hotel is expected to be completed in Charleston around Thanksgiving.

Sometimes Dewberry’s interpersonal skills and hard-nosed approach don’t do him favors. Friends talk of his abrasiveness with co-workers, brokers and vendors. Plenty of people have left his company.

Dewberry allowed that he can be difficult, but added: “I don’t lower my expectations for your inabilities.”

Some say the hard feelings have impeded his ability to land tenants and slowed his dreams.

“John is two people,” said Steve Cesinger, a lineman for Dewberry in high school and a former business partner. “He is the most charming man you will ever meet. And he is the biggest son of a bitch you will ever meet.”

About the reporter

Matt Kempner has shared his fascination with news and telling people’s stories at newspapers in Maryland and Georgia, including the last 23 years as a reporter and editor with the AJC. Along the way he’s interviewed soldiers, jousters, oystermen, football stars, chicken plant workers, Fortune 500 CEOs, farmers, suburban activists and entrepreneurs dreaming big dreams.


Mortality knocks

A heavy downpour has just swept through Macon as Dewberry’s private jet, a Beechjet 400, descends at the city’s downtown airport. It’s 10 in the morning, a comfy 72 degrees this mid-September day in 2012. He’s arriving for a meeting from his home in Charleston with just the basics: his golf clubs, an extra pair of shoes and Georgia, his German short-haired pointer and ever-present companion. The pilot and co-pilot man the controls. Dewberry is, as usual, unbuckled.

It could get a little rough, he thinks, so he calls Georgia over. Four seconds after touchdown, one of the crew utters a single word picked up on the aircraft’s voice recorder: Hydroplaning.

By the time Georgia reaches Dewberry, the jet is already sliding off the runway. He clutches her as the plane shoots off a steep decline and then across a road. Dog and master become an odd aerial act, floating together in the air and then slamming back down, slouched in the seat, then back up and down again.

Even before the jet starts slicing through trees, thundering like stampeding elephants, Dewberry slips into an envelope of calm. His father has been dead a year now from lung cancer, but Dewberry feels his presence and reassurance.

It’s not his time.

Bam! The nose stops dead into a tree. Dewberry kicks on the debris-encrusted door and escapes. The pilot is stuck in his seat, but OK. The co-pilot is up and moving, but cut.

Help arrives fast. Dewberry, acting like the quarterback, tries to direct emergency personnel.

An hour and a half later he’s back in his Midtown office on Peachtree, returning calls.

To this day, he still doesn’t wear a seat belt when flying.

“God wants me, he’ll get me,” he says.

The plane crash isn’t Dewberry’s only encounter with mortality in recent years.

The cancer started in his prostate; he ignored the symptoms. Later malignancies were found in his lymph nodes, his bones. A doctor told him he had two and a half years to live if the treatments didn’t work. He underwent radiation and surgery, plus hormone treatments that he thinks made him look puffy and fat.

Last year, in the midst of his third bout with malignancies, he added a two-word entry in his goal book: “Beat cancer.” He’s convinced he has, at least for now.

About the photographer

Ben Gray is a multimedia photojournalist at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who specializes in breaking news coverage. A photojournalist for more than 20 years, he joined the AJC in 1999. In that time he has been the beat photographer for the Falcons and the state Capitol, traveled on assignment to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Nicaragua and managed the photo department. In 2013, Ben left management to return to telling stories from behind the lens. He currently covers breaking news on the Atlanta Now team where he shoots photos and video and reports for the AJC and WSB Radio and TV.

These brushes with death are not without effect. He takes dozens of pills a day, things like fish oil that he expects to bolster his system. He has his blood checked monthly for hints that cancer may be back.

Some friends think they’ve picked up on modest changes: He’s a little less intense, more likely to enjoy the moment, more aware of burnishing a legacy. He has sworn off unnecessary up-tightness that in his mind could lead to cancer. No more wearing socks. No more constructing buildings without first having tenants signed on.

“I’m not going to die,” Dewberry says. God’s got a plan for him.

On his list of goals is being good to family, friends and people he works with and sharing more with them.

And he is embarking on his biggest burst of construction to date.

By the end of next year, he says he could have nearly $1 billion worth of projects underway. That includes the hotel under construction in Charleston, plans for the next one in Charlottesville and the first phase of a project on the former Richmond mall site.

In Atlanta, Dewberry says he’ll start building a new residential tower above a parking garage he owns near Piedmont Park along Juniper Street between 14th and 13th streets.

Of course, he’s still the quarterback making his own plays. On his list for the near future is a surprising engineering feat: adding six floors to the top of the 21-story Campanile building on Peachtree.

Never mind that Campanile is half empty. It’s a great location. Beautiful potential. He wants more of it.

Meanwhile, Dewberry contemplates what will make Midtown awesome.

“I’ve sat there and smoked cigars for hours on end on Michigan Avenue. It ain’t just about the shops. You have to get the iteration of street lights. The iterations of the planters on the street lights. The iteration of the planters on the sidewalk. The timing and the distances of lights and when they change.”

He’s commissioning a master plan to capture his Midtown vision.

“I’ve got to get it out of my head and on to paper ... I don’t want it to be lost.”

He won’t rush the greatness he envisions, not even to see the projects completed in his lifetime. It’ll get done either way, he figures. Death won’t beat the quarterback.

“What I have determined is I am what my daddy raised. That is ‘Good, better, best. Never let it rest, until my good is my better ... and my better is my best.”

Presentation by Shane Harrison.