By GREG MARTIN STAFF WRITER. Charlotte Sun-Herald Newspaper. Reprinted with permission.
With nothing but an imaginative vision and a lot of integrity, Al Johns developed Punta Gorda Isles, Burnt Store Marina and Deep Creek into premier retirement communities, forever changing the character of Charlotte County, say several longtime friends and colleagues.
Johns, of Woodland Drive, Punta Gorda, died early Thursday morning at Charlotte Regional Medical Center, according to a Charlotte County Sheriff’s ambulance dispatch log. He was 80.
Members of the Johns family could not be reached for comment Thursday.
But several of Johns’ longtime colleagues recalled him as a gifted deal negotiator who also lived a life rich in adventure.
“I think he just had a gift for looking at things and seeing something there that other people didn’t see,” said Paula McQueen, who worked for Punta Gorda Isles Inc. as an account executive for 28 years.
McQueen noted that even after hitting a downturn in the real estate market in the early 1990s, the company still sold all its lots and completed all its development obligations. Some other area developers facing the same challenge went bankrupt.
“Lots and lots of integrity,” McQueen said. “He was a great guy, very creative, very given to deliver what he promised and to keep his word.”
After a university education in North Carolina, where he played football, Johns joined the CIA and was assigned to a post in the East China Sea known as Tachen Island in the early 1950s. There he met two of his future PGI partners, fellow CIA agents Bud Cole and Sam Burchers, according to Burchers.
“Bud was a communications operator, I was an intelligence officer running agents in Communist China, and Al Johns was in charge of five or six Chinese junks,” Burchers recalled Thursday.
For the CIA, Johns supplied pirates who used the junks to harass Communist Chinese shipping, Burchers said.
Johns and Cole left the CIA in 1954 and opened a shoe store in Jacksonville. After the business failed, they relocated to Fort Lauderdale, where they worked for a developer.
In December 1957, Johns and a real estate broker, future PGI partner Bob Barbee, flew over a 500-acre tract of sand flats and mangroves west of Punta Gorda to scout out a potential development site, and the rest is history.
The partners struck a deal with the owners of the property, Gerald Moody and George Saunders, to purchase it with no money down. The owners would get paid as lots were sold, Burchers recalled.
At the time, Burchers said he was directing a training film for the CIA from Tampa. He soon joined his former CIA colleagues in their real estate venture.
Johns was the company’s leader, Cole was the “nuts-and-bolts guy,” and Burchers marketed the product, he said.
Without any capital, the company traded lots on a plat to dragline operators, paving contractors and advertising companies to get the project going, Burchers said.
“We had 60 signboards from here to Georgia,” he recalled. “Then we began selling. Lots were $40 down and $40 a month.”
Money was so tight, the company’s officers all lived in PGI’s office, then located in Charlotte Harbor near the U.S. 41 bridge. They kept their “rollaway beds” in their closets, he said.
“It was more fun when we weren’t raking in money,” said Burchers, who left the company in 1971.
“Al was a super salesman and a super guy that if you were around him five minutes, you liked him,” said Drayton Farr, who served as PGI’s attorney for several decades.
Farr also pointed out that Johns was an avid athlete. At golf, he set a record at an Arnold Palmer Golf Tournament in Orlando. As a weightlifter, even into his senior years, Johns won a world championship for his age group, Farr recalled.
“He also owned airplanes, flew them, loved them,” Farr said.
With its sailboat canals and underground utilities, PGI brought a higher standard to Charlotte County’s real estate market, Farr said. That brought lasting economic benefits, he said.
PGI ultimately developed 4,000 lots in PGI, Burnt Store Isles, Burnt Store Meadows, Burnt Store Lakes, Burnt Store Marina, Deep Creek, Prairie Creek Park, Prairie Creek Estates, Prairie Creek West and Sugarmill in Citrus County.
Johns also excelled in banking. In the 1970s, he joined the board of the First National Bank of Fort Myers. He soon led the bank to grow into a major holding company, Southwest Florida Banks.
“The goal was to always be reaching for something more — that was just what he did,” McQueen said.