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Stephen Geppi and Partners to do $50 Million Real Estate Deal with MBNA in Maine

Daniel O'Connell
ACROSS STATE LINES: A group of investors from Baltimore are purchasing valuable waterfront properties in Maine, including this one in Rockland, owned by MBNA Bank.
Jefferson Jackson Steele
THE OUT OF TOWNERS: Maine Investment Properties and Bracebridge estates share office space with Walter J. Skayhan's WJS&A office in Baltimore.

By Van Smith | Posted 6/29/2005

The news rated a front-page story in the Bangor, Maine, Daily News on June 16: “MBNA to sell land to Baltimore firm; Coastal properties valued at $50 million.” The seller, the former Maryland Bank National Association, is well-known—the Wilmington, Del.-based company has Baltimore roots, and is one of the world’s largest issuers of credit cards. But the buyer—Baltimore-based Maine Investment Properties LLC—was mysterious. Since MBNA is a mighty economic force on the Maine coast, the sale of properties in Rockland, Camden, Belfast, and Ducktrap Mountain overlooking Penobscot Bay caused people to wonder: Is the pending sale a sign that MBNA is pulling out of the Down East coast?

The answer to that long-term question remains unanswered for now. More immediate questions have to do with the buyers. Who are they, and what are their track records as real estate investors? When the story first broke, the day before six MBNA executives were saved after their corporate helicopter crashed into New York’s East River, the only information available was from Brett A. Cohen, a vice president of Maine Investment Properties and of Walter J. Skayhan III and Associates Inc. (WJS&A), a Baltimore-based real estate firm. Cohen explained to the Maine press that Maine Investment Properties and WJS&A are related firms, but he declined to name Maine Investment’s principals (except to say there were three). Cohen also gave vague reassurances that the soon-to-be owners were looking forward to working with local officials on appropriate uses for the properties.

During a June 27 phone interview, Walter J. Skayhan III confirmed that he is a partner in Maine Investment with Richard Pineau, a Baltimore roofer who sold his company in 1999, and Stephen Geppi, the chief executive of Timonium-based Diamond Comic Distributors, a minority owner of the Orioles, and the publisher of Baltimore magazine.

This is not the first time MBNA has sold property to Geppi, Pineau, and Skayhan. Earlier this year, MBNA sold its 550-acre hunting retreat and 40,000-square-foot mansion in Earleville, on the Eastern Shore portion of Cecil County, to Bracebridge Estates LLC—a partnership of Skayhan, Pineau, and Geppi—for $13.6 million, in a transaction financed by MBNA. Maine Investment Properties and Bracebridge Estates share the same Charles Village address, on the 2100 block of Maryland Avenue, as WJS&A. The connection between Skayhan, Bracebridge, and MBNA was first reported on June 22 by the Camden, Maine, Village Soup Times. Details, such as who the partners in the transaction were and that MBNA financed the Bracebridge deal, were not included.

Anthony Ambridge, a friend of Pineau’s and a partner in Lambda Development, a Baltimore real estate company, told City Paper on June 24 that “I just had breakfast with [Pineau] a few days ago, at the [New] Wyman Park Restaurant. He’s a good guy. He told me he was buying property in Maine. I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because I like it, I like Maine.’ He sold his company a few years ago, and he has a lot of money.” The company, Roofers Inc., was founded by Pineau’s late father, and was sold for an undisclosed sum to Pompano Beach, Fla.-based General Roofing Services Inc. in 1999.

Ambridge, who once served on the City Council and is the city’s former real estate officer, adds that Pineau told him about a mid-June party thrown at Bracebridge for injured war veterans from military hospitals in the Washington suburbs. The party, he says, was attended by Gov. Robert Ehrlich and retired Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr., among other luminaries.

Ambridge says that Skayhan has “historically done nonprofit development” and “knows how to get grants” for nonprofit projects. WJS&A, in fact, did a recent project for Man Alive Research Inc., a methadone clinic across the street from Skayhan’s offices. Ambridge is past president of Man Alive. Two lawsuits were filed in 2004 as a result of the Man Alive contract, in which Skayhan was represented by Ira Cooke, a Maryland lawyer/lobbyist who was disbarred in April after a criminal conviction for fraud in California (“Cooke-d,” Quick and Dirty, Feb. 2, 2005).

Skayhan says about a third of his real estate development business is working with the drug-treatment economy in and around Baltimore, including Man Alive and another treatment center next to his office that operates mobile methadone clinics out of large vehicles.

Geppi, whose involvement in the project was confirmed through Skayhan, Pineau, and others could not be reached for comment.

While Newman and Lange say the new Bracebridge owners said their intention was to run the estate as a hunting retreat, Skayhan says they plan to build a “sporting community” on the property. He says an engineering firm is studying a possible subdivision for 80 to 100 units of high-end housing.

Rob Etgen, executive director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, a private land-conservation group whose bid to buy Bracebridge from MBNA was turned down last year, said the subdivision plan sounds like one that was submitted by another prospective buyer last year. If the new owners are in fact planning to resubmit that plan, Etgen adds, “that’s not good—that’s a blow for us.”

Skayhan and Pineau have another major deal in the works—this one on downtown’s west side. They are working on a $23 million research facility with nearly 170,000 square feet of rentable space on West Baltimore Street across from the $300 million University of Maryland Baltimore BioPark. Skayhan says the project “is not final yet.”

Neither is the Maine transaction, which Skayhan says is tentatively scheduled for closing in September. In the meantime, developers and investors from New England have been contacting him about prospective resales of the properties.

Mainers, meanwhile, anxiously await details about the MBNA-Maine Investment Properties deal.

“This is front-page news because of the sheer square footage and properties the deal represents,” says Lorie Costigan, editor of the Village Soup Times. “MBNA is the largest employer on the midcoast [of Maine]. People want to see these buildings and properties used.”

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