Ben Gramling has always had dirt on his hands, though not in a bad way.
The president of Gramling Brothers Real Estate & Development, one of the Charleston area’s busiest developers, grew up on a family-owned peach farm in Spartanburg County in, where else but, Gramling. Population: 86.
“I think farming helps give you some respect for the land,” Gramling said.
Today, his Charleston-based company cultivates a more lucrative cash crop — land development.
In addition to turning 4,500 acres of forest and wetlands in Berkeley County into Cane Bay, one of the largest new subdivisions in the Lowcountry with waterways or wetlands backing up to 85 percent of the projected 10,000 homesites, Gramling oversees a cartload of commercial projects throughout the metro area, including condominiums, hotels and retail centers.
A graduate of Furman University, the political science major returned to the farm after college but he also plowed into real estate in a company of a similar name — Gramling Brothers Real Estate — founded by his uncle John.
“He told me, ‘In the real estate business, everything is urgent. When a deal is ready to be done, go do it. Don’t wait until the next day,’” Gramling said.
He and business partners developed a couple of 18-hole golf courses in the Upstate, with one opening in 1989 just as the economy was beginning to sour after the booming Reagan era. Gramling muddled through, but it gave him a taste for development.
“I would find diamonds in the rough, poorly managed by previous owners,” he said. “I would clean them up, expose mountain views and resell them.”
He originally did that for other people, but then wised up and started doing it for himself. He later experienced his first exposure to the housing market by putting together a deal with Ryland Homes for 250 houses while in Spartanburg.
At the same time, he was no stranger to Charleston. He often traveled to Kiawah Island to play golf.
“I always liked this area, and every time I would come to Charleston, I would look for a business opportunity but never seemed to find the right one,” he said.
In 2000, he drove from the Upstate, rented a home on Sullivan’s Island for his wife and three sons and found a couple of parcels in Dorchester County near Summerville that the former MeadWestvaco Corp., now WestRock Co., was looking to sell.
Gramling bought them right after the 2001 terrorist attacks and developed 158 lots for single-family homes and townhouses called Arbor Oaks on Bacons Bridge Road and another 600 homes and townhomes off Lincolnville Road called Summerhaven. He also developed another 300 homes in Summer Park, just down the street.
Gramling intended to return to Spartanburg but started finding other deals. The Lowcountry soon became his home.
In 2003, he bought an 87-acre parcel from MeadWestvaco in what is now Cane Bay Plantation with plans to develop it, but not immediately.
Six months later, the paper giant and land development company approached him about buying some more property.
He asked, “How many acres?” They said, “4.”
“At first I thought it was 400, but then they said, ‘No, it’s 4,000,’” he remembered. “I didn’t think I would need anything that big. The next thing I knew we were sitting down and negotiating some terms.”
Not long after that, he found out Berkeley County School District was looking for land to purchase for a new high school to handle growth in the Goose Creek area.
“I told them, ‘We don’t have any land for you to purchase, but we have a piece we will give you,’” Gramling remembered.
He asked them to draw a line around the acreage they thought they would need for the high school as well as middle and elementary schools. They selected 168 acres close to U.S. Highway 176.
And why did he give the land away?
“I saw it as one of the big drawing cards to attract new home owners to Cane Bay,” he said.
Construction started in 2006 on the school, and the first house in Cane Bay was sold by home builder Centex the next year in what is now Old Rice Retreat, one of the 14 neighborhoods inside the sprawling tract of winding roads, walking trails and man-made waterways.
That was just before the housing market crashed and sent the U.S. economy into a deep downward spiral.
“It was a very trying time, and we were not immune to it,” he said. “But we survived.”
At the center of the complex is Del Webb, a housing community for the 55-plus set with more than 1,020 units at build-out, possibly by next year. It opened in 2007, and closings on 850 homesites have taken place in the gated community.
Recently, another home builder broke ground on a 296-acre tract for another 55-plus community.
New Jersey-based K. Hovnanian Homes plans to build 828 houses near the back of the huge Cane Bay tract.
“A lot of people are retiring here from New Jersey and New York,” said Sam Abruzzo, senior community manager for Hovnanian. “We like this area.”
Cane Bay now has 2,200 homes on the ground with contracts from home builders for another 4,000 or so, Gramling said.
“If we stay on a path of doing 500-plus homes a year, we will be substantially completed in 10-12 years,” he said. “But we know how things can go up and down with the economy.”
Recently, Bethesda, Md.-based real estate consultant firm RCLCO named Cane Bay as one of the nine hottest home markets in the country for master-planned communities.
Last year, sales jumped 35.1 percent, rising from 385 in 2014 to 520 in 2015.
Gramling attributes Cane Bay’s success to convenience, recreation, preservation, affordability and access to jobs.
“When you get here, you don’t have to leave,” he said. “Everything you need is here.”
A Publix-anchored shopping center with several restaurants and health services sits at the entrance to the neighborhood. A new YMCA will sit on 68 donated acres near Del Webb.
A focal point of Cane Bay is a huge lake created through reclamation of an old sand mine. Home development hasn’t reached it yet, but its pristine surroundings will offer some prime views.
Homes are selling from the low $200,000s on up, making them affordable in the otherwise high-priced Lowcountry, and the development of Volvo’s $500 million car-manufacturing plant a few miles to the west will open job opportunities to those living in the area.
On the commercial side, Gramling has his hands in several projects around the Lowcountry. He isn’t always looking to take on more, but he hasn’t closed the door if the right opportunity knocks.
“If somebody calls, we always go look,” he said. “We might not want what they have, but we always go look.”
Like other developers, Gramling is battling land prices in the Charleston area.
“They have really skyrocketed,” he said. “Charleston is a hot market. A lot of growth is going on here. A lot of folks are moving here, and job growth in the region is huge. Home sales are good, commercial is back and banks are lending again for most projects.”
His vice president of business development, Mikell Harper, sees interest in the Charleston market firsthand.
“From a retail standpoint, I think the grocery store chains are back looking for new sites,” Harper said. “A bunch of retailers are looking at the market as a multi-site footprint. They hunt that first location usually in Summerville or Mount Pleasant and then branch out to other areas.”
And what else is Gramling Brothers looking to take on?
Gramling replied, “That’s about all we can do right now.”
Reach Warren L. Wise at 843 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.