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Selling Dirt and Dreams: Doky Saffo’s Imprint on the Local Landscape

In Doky Saffo’s 82 years he’s seen this corner of North Carolina grow in ways newcomers can’t even understand.

When he was a boy, Wilmington was a dot on a map, and Brunswick County, well, Brunswick County was little more than pastureland and fields. How could he have known then that he would become one of the most innovative developers in the region, lighting the fuse to the trend of planned communities and watching it explode over the coming decades?

“Oh, it’s changed a lot,” he says with a laugh. “When I was a boy I didn’t really know anything outside Wilmington, so it was my world. By the time I entered the real estate business in 1966, there were only 60,000 or so in Wilmington and another 4,000, maybe, in the north end of Brunswick County. There wasn’t much here. We were the end of the line.”

The real estate bug first bit Saffo in 1953, 13 years before he devoted his life full-time to selling dirt and dreams. He’d just been discharged after a two-year stint in the Army and a friend of his wanted to buy a lot on then-bucolic Oleander Drive in Wilmington. The price was $2,500.

“That was a lot of money back in those days, but somehow or another — I guess I borrowed a little money here and there — I got the money together and we bought that lot,” Saffo says. “Nine months later, we sold it and I made a thousand dollar profit. I thought I’d hit the big time.”

Saffo’s first $1,000 wasn’t enough to pull him out of the restaurant his family owned, but it was enough to whet his appetite and make him take notice of the opportunities around him. Wilmington was growing by fits and starts, and property values were slowly increasing. Real estate looked like a good investment.

“In 1959 I married Despina, the best woman in the world,” says Saffo. “I was a first-generation Greek and she was new to the country and, I tell you, it was love from the beginning.”

When he married, Saffo was entrenched in his family’s legacy of restaurants. His grandfather owned a candy store and soda fountain and his father owned a restaurant. At 13, he started working and he “ain’t quit since.” From the time he married until he sold Saffo’s Restaurant in 1966, he brought home $85 a week, $90 on a good week and $100 on the rare occasion. All the while, that $1,000 real estate deal lay in the back of his mind.

“I got out, I had to, I wanted to make a go at it in real estate,” he says.

Saffo turned his savings and the money from the sale of Saffo’s Restaurant into the piece of property that became Lansdowne Estates in Wilmington. For $200 an acre, he and a couple of partners bought 150 acres of pine forest and spent a small fortune doing it. They surveyed the land, built roads, divided it into lots and sold them for $5,500. Suddenly, that $1,000 profit looked like small change, and for Doky Saffo, the hook of real estate was firmly set.

It wasn’t until the early 1970s that he turned his eye to Leland and the northern end of Brunswick County.

“I’d invested in a restaurant in Charleston [South Carolina] and as I drove down, I noticed that the little town across the river, Mount Pleasant, was booming,” he says. “All these people from Charleston were crossing the river to get a little more land and a little more room for their families. On the drive home, I looked at [what would become] Leland and Belville and thought, ‘That could happen here.’”

Not long after that trip, he looked around Wilmington for more land to develop and found that people were hanging on to it all, so he turned his eye to Brunswick County. Soon enough, he bought the property that would become Olde Towne.

“People thought I was crazy,” he says with a grin. “But I knew I was on to something. Brunswick County’s a beautiful place and it was close enough to commute to Wilmington or work at one of the plants on that side of the river.”

Saffo’s first investments — Lansdowne Estates and Olde Towne, among others — were sold mostly to builders, only occasionally to the end property owner. Like today, the developer assumed the expense of setting up the infrastructure (power lines, telephone, cable, sewer and water services), but for builders and developers, the 1960s and ’70s were a different era governed by different regulations.

“Back then, developers and builders could do things however they wanted,” Saffo recalls. “We always did our best to treat the land with respect, and the builders we sold to, they were always responsible and always delivered a great product to the residents of the communities we’d seeded. It was always important that we sold to reputable builders because our reputation was on the line too.”

Today, Saffo says, the rules and regulations are both helpful and harmful for developers, builders and homeowners. The “months of waiting for permits” lead to increased costs, as do fees, fines and fixes. On the other hand, many regulations — like those governing marshland and storm water runoff — help keep land intact and protect not only homes and valuable infrastructure improvements, but also the environment, the very land a developer like Saffo holds in such high value.

Soon after Olde Towne, Saffo and a rotating group of investors set their sights on the land around Highway 17 and Route 133. They began buying parcels from International Paper and developing, reselling or holding on to them in turn.

“Pretty much all of those developments along 17 and 133 — Jackeys Creek, Mallory Creek, the commercial portion of Waterford and too many others to name — my partners and I had interests in,” he says.

When he’s asked about his legacy, Saffo chuckles.

“I’ve never really thought of a legacy,” he says. “But I guess if I had to point out a real estate legacy, I’d point at the success of the 35 plus communities I developed or had a hand in developing. I’d look at the fact that my five children and 13 grandchildren have places to live and food on their tables and a great area to live in. I’d look, too, at Craig Stevens, the builder and developer, as part of that legacy.”

Saffo recalls Stevens fondly and says that when Stevens was first looking for a job in real estate, a competitor marched Stevens into Saffo’s office, introduced the two and told Saffo, “Good luck.”

“I didn’t need luck, what I saw was a talented young man who needed to learn the industry,” Saffo says. “Judging by his success, he learned what he needed to know. I’m proud of what he’s done, as proud as if he were one of my sons.”

Doky and Despina’s five children — Bill, Nick, Tony, Archie and Sophia — and 13 grandchildren all live nearby, except one who is in Raleigh in college. Saffo is proud of what they’ve all done and says he and his wife reflect on the success he built and the successes their children have built and say they’re living the fabled American Dream.

“She’s funny,” Saffo says of Despina. “She calls me a workaholic, but I point to what our kids have achieved — mayor of Wilmington, business owners and successes in their own right — and tell her they had to learn that somewhere.”

“In all seriousness, I guess I have been, at times, a workaholic,” he admits, “but I always felt like I needed to set foot on the land I was developing and check on the properties I owned or represented in order to be a good steward of them and a good businessman.”

Saffo’s diligence and dedication have certainly paid off. Look around the Cape Fear region in Brunswick or New Hanover counties and you’ll find his thumbprint and the marks of those he taught. He calls this corner of the state “the best-kept secret on the East Coast.”

And the good news is that by his estimation, the real estate industry is on the rebound. New homes are going up across the region, and builders and developers alike are seeing more interest in property that has sat vacant for too long. Saffo says a change is coming, and he thinks that like the changes he saw in his lifetime and early real estate career, it’s an important one for the region.

“Coming up, Wilmington was small and it was hard to find work here,” he says. “I always told my mom and dad I wanted to move to New York or someplace where the action is. I’m glad I didn’t. I’m glad I made my own action. I’m glad I stayed.”

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