Nearly two decades ago, Rich Meister decided to chuck city life and find a place he could call his own in a serene, slower-paced setting.
A place where he could fish, boat and forget about the stresses of life in Chicagoland.
“I’d looked around the country quite a bit at developments, and they were so massively expensive,” Meister said. “For a quarter acre, it was like fifty, sixty thousand dollars.”
Then a friend told him about Forbes Lake of the Ozarks Park. Nearly 13,000 acres of wooded property in central Missouri, broken up into affordable lots of 11/4 to 6 acres.
In 1996, he and his wife made the seven-plus-hour trip from Chicago to check out the area. They bought two lakefront lots. A year and a half later, Meister retired and the couple built a house on the property.
Now, more than 30 years after a Forbes publishing company subsidiary bought the land and aggressively marketed it worldwide as a “lakeland paradise,” much of the property remains undeveloped. A large portion of the 2,000 landowners have never laid eyes on their land. Many parcels have gone through foreclosure.
Yet the fewer-than-expected residents of rural and waterfront property speak appreciatively of the resulting isolation, even as some talk wistfully about a more vibrant community that never came to be — and what that might have meant to their home values.
Once Forbes sold all of the nearly 4,000 lots, it pulled up stakes and turned the operation over to an association of landowners.
Not that those who live there are complaining. They like the seclusion for the most part, and rave about the pristine property loaded with deer, turkeys and other wildlife. The gated development includes a shooting range, an RV park and tennis court for landowners and guests, and spectacular views. In addition to nearly 5 miles of shoreline, the property has three interior lakes ranging in size from 17 to 28 acres.
But some landowners admit that it would be nice to have more activity in the area.
“It’s been a very well-kept secret,” said Gary Batson, president of the Forbes Lake of the Ozarks Land Owners Association. “In the beginning, there was a rush. They were marketing, and they sold to people all over the world. Now, we’re trying to do some things to spark some interest and get our name out there again.”
The development is centered about 130 miles southeast of Kansas City and 20 miles east of Warsaw, Mo. Most of it is in Benton County, with a small portion in Camden County.
Many streets bear names that read like a roll call of Republican icons: Malcolm Road, Bush Drive, Koch Lane, Helmsley Place, Bond Drive, Nancy Reagan Circle and Rockefeller Lane. There are different stories circulating about how those came about. Some say the Forbes family chose them. Others say company employees were offered a chance to pick them.
Sean Dockery, whose Warsaw company was hired by the landowners association last year to manage day-to-day operations, said Forbes also purchased several other properties around the country during that time.
“I don’t know why they chose the areas they chose,” Dockery said. “There’s nothing wrong with the middle of Missouri, but that doesn’t seem to be — well, that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, I’ll put it that way.”
He said the property owners come from all over the world.
“Some people even bought it sight unseen,” he said. “The farthest away … is in Australia. There are owners in Germany, in England, just about anywhere you can think of.”
Dockery said the property appeals to both those who like a fast-paced lifestyle and those who prefer a more leisurely pace.
“Some people who live here are real close to the Osage Beach and Lake of the Ozarks area, then some people prefer a slower life like it is in Warsaw,” he said. “It’s a nice area that gives you pretty good access to either location.”
Only about 50 houses have been built on the property, Dockery said. The majority are permanent residences, he said, and some are vacation homes. A few are under construction.
He said about half the lots are set up for camping. A person could pitch a tent and stay for a vacation, he said, but can’t keep it there permanently.
Homes are required to have 1,000 square feet on the main floor, but there’s plenty of leeway on the style.
“There are log homes, a ranch style, Spanish style, one with a round dome shape,” Dockery said. “They’re pretty reasonable in letting people build what they want, but it has to be a professional job.”
The average house is in the $300,000 to $400,000 range, Dockery said.
Sangre de Cristo Ranches, a Colorado-based division of Forbes Inc., bought the rural and lakefront property and began selling it in 1984 for vacation and year-round home sites. The land was advertised in business, outdoor and travel magazines and pitched as a quiet, wooded refuge on or near the lakefront.
“Right in the heartland of America,” said an ad in a July 1984 edition of Field & Stream magazine. “Away from cities, noise, pollution and the rat race of the workaday world. About 12,800 acres of scenic paradise. Not for everybody, but maybe for you.”
It was a great sales pitch, said Meister, secretary of the landowners association.
“For $50 down and $50 a month for 15 years, you could own an acre and a half of virgin forest,” he said.
While some lots were excellent, others were unbuildable, he said, because of bedrock in the soil and steep inclines.
“But with people seeing the ads in the magazines throughout the world, they purchased lots sight unseen,” he said. “And a lot of people thought, ‘Forbes Magazine — they’re rich. This is a good investment here.’ They could own a little slice of the wilderness, and Forbes was backing it. It had to be something good.”
Over the years, however, many of the landowners have either lost interest in the property or can’t afford to keep it.
“Some of these people have passed the land on to their kids, and the kids have no idea what this is,” said Jim Kramer, a board member of the landowners association. “They’ve been getting a bill once a year for the dues but have never been there. And some simply decide they don’t want to pay that anymore.”
Besides facing foreclosure for failing to pay land association dues — $132.75 a year per lot can add up fast if not paid on time — some owners end up losing their property in a sheriff’s sale for not paying their taxes. More than 60 properties are currently listed for an upcoming sheriff’s sale in Benton County for failing to pay 2013 and 2014 property taxes. The amounts owed range from $92 to $741.
“We’ve got right around 50 lots now that we’ve repossessed or bought in tax sales that we’re selling ourselves,” Meister said. “And we’ve got some more coming up this year that people haven’t paid.”
Meister said the association needs to be more aggressive selling the property. One reason: It’s not receiving any dues on the property that it owns.
“We’re in our infancy trying to poke our heads out from underneath the sheets, and we don’t really know what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s all trial and error.”
Selling some of the lots could be difficult, Kramer said.
“Some of them won’t ever move,” he said. “Some of them, I don’t know how you would build on, and others, if you want to build on them, it would be overly expensive. There may be a big slope or gully running through the middle of it.”
Batson said the landowners association has created committees to help garner interest in the property.
“Since de Cristo got out of it and they’re not marketing it for sales anymore, nobody wants to pick up the tab for that,” he said. “And I don’t find it right to spend members’ money on that kind of thing, either. So we’ll do it on a volunteer basis and see what we can do.”
Despite those concerns, many landowners say they have no regrets.
“Beautiful land. Just gorgeous,” said Batson, who bought his property about five years ago. “It’s almost guaranteed every time down you’ll see deer and turkey.”
He said the landowners association is working hard to develop a better sense of community. Members have regular activities, including a recent ’50s and ’60s dance, fish fry, photo contest, wine tasting event and a fishing tournament.
Jim and Judy Kramer bought their two lots in the late 1980s and built a house in 1998.
“We checked a number of places and found this,” said Jim Kramer, who had worked as a data center manager in Dallas. “We decided to pick it up, and if it fell flat, it wasn’t all that expensive.”
The price on most of the lots back then was $3,500, he said, unless they were on the lakefront.
“Our nearest neighbor is about a quarter mile away,” he said. “If I get two cars that go by here a day, then it’s 5 o’clock traffic.”
Meister, who before retiring worked at General Motors in the Chicago area in a division that made diesel locomotives, acknowledges that it’s now a long drive to any shopping districts.
“It’s 20 miles to the Wal-Mart and our one grocery store,” he said. “So between the two of them, you’d better find what you want or you’ve got to travel over an hour away.”
But he said he wouldn’t trade his place for anything.
“I’m from Chicago,” he said. “And the key word is ‘from.’ Somebody said to me, ‘When’s the last time you went on vacation?’ And I said, ‘Every day of the week.’”