George Barbar, a bold entrepreneur and investor who, although his fortune once rose and fell with a fickle South Florida real estate market, still left a lasting impression on development in Boca Raton, died of cancer Wednesday. He was 74.
Mr. Barbar, who was born in Furn-El-Shuback, Lebanon, brought his signature brand of energy and optimism to Boca Raton in 1974 after spending 20 years as merchant, car salesman and aluminum industry founder in Jamaica.
Once in South Florida, Mr. Barbar, who as a boy in Lebanon sold school supplies out of his desk to other students, started a family business and eventually pitched a commercial development project intended to transform downtown Boca Raton into a vital retail center.
Public outcry, stoked by changes to city height restrictions, among other things, ultimately led to a 1985 referendum that doomed the idea. But Mr. Barbar had other projects in the works.
At the peak of his career in the mid-80s, Mr. Barbar took a chance to build one exclusive neighborhood, Woodfield Hunt Club, and made plans for a second, even more ambitious project, Woodfield Country Club.
But Mr. Barbar would never see the country club's completion, which he had come to envision as the crowning achievement of his investment career.
As was the case with Woodfield Hunt Club, the country club project demanded millions of dollars, which Mr. Barbar borrowed from two thrifts just as the savings-and-loan crisis began in the late '80s.
As the real estate market soured, the Resolution Trust Corp., the federal agency founded to rescue lending institutions from insolvency, took over the S&Ls that had backed Mr. Barbar's investment.
Unable to pay $78 million in overdue loans, Mr. Barbar filed for bankruptcy in 1991, and the federal government sold Woodfield Country Club at auction.
Despite the blow, Mr. Barbar and his family continued on in other business ventures. Most recently Mr. Barbar teamed with his oldest son, Anthony, to start a successful real estate consulting firm.
In his lifetime Mr. Barbar received several honors, including the Spirit of America award given by the U.S. Olympic Committee, the Ellis Island Award and the National Conference of Christians and Jews' Silver Medallion Brotherhood.
He also served on the boards of Lynn University and the Florida Atlantic University Foundation, and in 1985 he was appointed by Gov. Bob Graham to the Florida High-Speed Rail Commission.
But it was as "dean of Boca Raton real estate" that most will remember him, developer Skip Stoltz said.
"He was a real gentleman, and he had the foresight for downtown Boca, which led to many of the things that we see in the downtown area today," Stoltz said. "It was his dream."