When Jim Berger arrived in Colorado Springs in 1958 to start a career in real estate, he had $400 to his name and knew nothing about real estate.
But he persuaded local banking legend Chase Stone to lend him money to open a real estate office and learned on the job, often the hard way, by making mistakes. In less than 10 years, he headed the local Board of Realtors and a few years after that began developing the Vista Grande area in northeast Colorado Springs.
Berger, 84, will be honored with the 11th annual Lifetime Entrepreneurship Award from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs College of Business at a May luncheon. He also has been a key volunteer for UCCS, helping the school acquire parcels along Nevada Avenue and Austin Bluffs Parkway that have become the gateway to the 12,500-student campus.
Steve Schuck, a Colorado Springs developer who has known Berger for decades, said Berger was “always one step ahead of the market. He had the greatest instinct for what the market wanted. He anticipated the market. He knew what the market wanted before the market knew what it wanted. But his most significant quality is his sense of community and commitment to giving back.”
Berger was born in Denver but grew up in Cheyenne, the son of a professional musician who sold real estate on the side. He graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in business. After six months of working for a large Milwaukee company, he headed back to Colorado, where he formed his company to sell three-bedroom houses for a builder on the west side for $10,900 each.
“When I came to Colorado Springs, I didn’t know anyone and had less than $400 in my wallet and had never sold a piece of real estate,” Berger said.
“I specialized in selling property on the west side, and it took six months to get my first sale. I went to see Chase Stone (then president of First National Bank, the city’s largest bank), and he wrapped his arm around me and told me he knew I would make it.”
Berger’s real estate company took off when a television executive asked him in the late 1960s to do a weekly show on Saturday afternoons on KRDO-TV about real estate. After the first show, calls started to pour into his real estate office, allowing him to expand from six or seven agents to several dozen and become a major player in the local residential real estate market.
“The TV show changed my life,” Berger said. “I was able to go from not knowing a soul here to become president of the Board of Realtors less than 10 years later.”
He later sold his real estate firm to Garrett-Bromfield, a major Denver real estate brokerage company, to move into developing rather than selling real estate. But his first development was nearly his last because he found out after acquiring the property that the city would require him to build three bridges that would have put the project underwater. But he worked out a three-way land trade that saved it.
Colorado Springs School “District 11 had just built Grant School and needed land for an adjacent park, so I offered to trade them the land they needed for land owned by Steve Schuck, and all of a sudden, the bridges were no longer needed,” Berger said.
“I very nearly went broke during a(n economic) downturn in the late 1960s but later developed the Shadow Glen Shopping Center and adjacent residential area.”
The turning point for Berger came in a 1969 call from homebuilder John Ventimiglia, who had the chance to buy the Vista Grande development northeast of Academy Boulevard and Austin Bluffs Parkway from Scurr-Messenger & Associates. He was looking for a partner in the deal, and Berger recommended they join with Gary Rocks to add a partner with engineering expertise.
They formed Col-Terra Investments to buy and develop Vista Grande, each investing $1 to start the company. He soon discovered why Scurr-Messenger wanted to sell — a major wastewater lift station needed to be built to enable development, and the cost of that meant the economics of the entire project wouldn’t work. Having an engineer as a partner was key to solving that issue; Rocks came up with a solution that kept Col-Terra from losing money on the property.
The development was a hit in the early years, but housing construction in the Springs came to an almost overnight halt in mid-1973, when the Colorado Springs City Council imposed a moratorium on new natural gas connections because of a gas shortage.
“We had hundreds, if not thousands of contracts on lots to be developed. All were null and void after the moratorium. We sold one lot in the first year after that and two in the second year. We almost bit the big one and went broke,” Berger said.
“Never in my entire life have I contemplated bankruptcy. I always found a way to pay my creditors, sometimes late, but always in full.”
The three partners also built Lynmar Racquet Club, an indoor tennis complex and health club. Berger said a local savings and loan association had agreed to finance the project, but after it was more than a third completed, the loan was denied because of the gas connection moratorium and the S&L got into trouble with regulators because of a fraudulent deal on a southwest Colorado Springs shopping center.
“We went to another S&L and got a loan at 14 percent interest and renewed it at 22 percent, but we couldn’t make it work, so we used our personal funds,” Berger said. “We also bought an old filling station for the fuel tanks and used that for a fuel-oil burning boiler system that could also use natural gas. We finished the project and were successful for many years.”
Col-Terra’s next project, called Homestead, near Barnes Road and Powers Boulevard, was in the path of future development but also had a costly problem Berger and his partners discovered after they bought the property. They needed to install a high-pressure water line to serve part of the development, and the cost would have once again put the entire project in the red. They bought more land over which to spread the cost and found a less costly solution, helping turn Homestead into another success for the company.
“It’s always been said that location, location, location is the most important thing in real estate, but timing is equally or more important. You can have everything going for you, but if the economy goes down the tubes, you’ll go with it,” Berger said.
“That’s the reason I won’t go in debt again. Debt has eventually killed most businesses that have gone into debt. But when you are starting out, unless you have money to begin with, how do you do it without borrowing?”
After retiring from the development industry 25 years ago, Berger has devoted his time to helping UCCS acquire key properties along North Nevada Avenue and Austin Bluffs Parkway, including vacant land where the two streets intersect, the former Compassion International headquarters that now houses the UCCS nursing program and a former satellite plant that now houses the National Cybersecurity Center.
“It wasn’t a lot of land, probably 20-30 acres, some homes and the two buildings, but they were strategic sites. We wanted the university to own everything along Nevada and Austin Bluffs.”
Martin Wood, UCCS vice chancellor for university advancement, called Berger “a great friend of the university. He is always asking, ‘How can I help?’ and he has always been there for the university. He even stepped away from a family gathering on Thanksgiving years ago to get the deal done” on what would become the cybersecurity center.
Berger also has been a significant donor to the school’s scholarship programs and is involved in an effort to help the College of Business start a real estate education program.
Wood said the parcels Berger helped UCCS acquire were “very critical,” especially a parcel at the intersection of Nevada Avenue and Austin Bluffs Parkway where the seller had talked about building self-storage units. The corner now anchors the west end of the UCCS campus where the school has built the Ent Center for the Arts, several athletic facilities and a health care building with another under construction.
Contact Wayne Heilman: 636-0234