This story was originally published in the Wichita Business Journal on October 5, 2012

Equity-sharing apartment project is just latest step in journey to bigger dreams

by John Stearns

The large swath of dirt being graded at the northeast corner of K-96 and Oliver is Jason Van Sickle’s proving ground.

The 208-unit Chisholm Lake Apartments project is Van Sickle’s first to employ an unusual model: The developer, contractor, architect, engineers and landowner have given up a majority of their fees in return for ownership.

That lowers construction costs without jeopardizing quality. As a result, the project will command high rents, and the margins will be 25 to 30 percent, accelerating the return on investment.

It’s a model Van Sickle developed after learning the real estate industry from several angles. He grew up with it — his father is Jeff Van Sickle, CEO at GLMV Architecture — and he’s made it a point to work in a wide variety of situations.

That experience has mostly come since 2005, when he got his master’s degree in sociology from Wichita State University. He was fresh off reading Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” and settled on becoming a real estate developer. Knowing he needed experience, he sought it, first with Grubb & Ellis | Martens Commercial Group.

“I wanted to work for specific companies and individuals to gain specific knowledge and insight,” says Van Sickle, 39.

Learning from experience

He learned about property research and appraisals at Martens before moving on to Value Place, building the extended-stay hotel company’s research department.

“I was fortunate to really learn real estate research and real estate development at a company like that during its strongest growth period,” Van Sickle says.

Later came stints in a partnership flipping homes and at WSU’s Center for Real Estate. He also met developer Dave Burk, who was planning a downtown apartment project called The Flats. Van Sickle offered to help Burk if he could be part-owner. Burk agreed, and they started just as the housing market went into meltdown.

Because legislators were threatening the historic-preservation tax credits that were crucial to The Flats’ financing, Burk needed the project done by year-end. The experience taught Van Sickle the value of a contractor who can meet a deadline and the unpredictability of public subsidies.

“That was a nerve-racking time for me,” he says.

After The Flats, Van Sickle decided he wanted to do new apartments. That’s when he developed his model.

It’s gotten attention. He has similar deals brewing in Tulsa, Topeka, downtown Wichita, Andover, Derby and Kansas City.

Van Sickle has a foundation to be successful, says Stanley Longhofer, director of the Center for Real Estate.

“Jason is a really dynamic, energetic young man who has a lot of vision and a lot of passion in the industry,” Longhofer says. His strengths include “seeing the opportunities that exist and being undaunted by barriers that are there.”

First succeed, then give back

Marque Peer, vice president for development at Great Plains Ventures, the landowner on the Chisholm Park project, says Van Sickle “knows that he’s got to prove himself on this. He’s very motivated in that respect.”

Van Sickle wants to build respect and a long-term business, Peer says, so he strives to do the right thing.

Doing right is important to Van Sickle, who studied ethics as an undergraduate philosophy major at WSU. He says he values relationships and respects the intrinsic value of people.

“Money really is worthless unless you’ve got good relationships with people,” he says. He doesn’t have time for people “who are egotistical or self-centered. Those aren’t the type of people I want to be around.”

He values the good life he’s had, and he says that obligates him to work hard and give back. He wants to succeed in business to amass resources he can use to help others and make meaningful change, he says.

He’d like to help fund education for people, saying “education is the great equalizer of opportunity.” He says he’s inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s call to amass wealth in the first half of one’s life and give it away in the second.

Van Sickle says he’s fortunate to love what he does and calls himself a “straight, old-school workaholic.” He’s putting everything he has into making his model successful so he can help others later.

“I can’t waste this opportunity,” he says.