Wheeler deal: Wintergreen teams with big Roy

Since its inception in the mid-1970s, nearly 4,000 homes have sprung up at the Wintergreen mountain community near Nellysford. Although the terrain can be steep and craggy, real estate firms have competed for listings on level ground. But now an exclusive alliance between the Wintergreen Resort and Ivy-based Roy Wheeler Realty Co. may change the way properties are bought and sold. And that's touched off some controversy.

On August 31, Wintergreen Resort announced the joint venture with Roy Wheeler, calling the new entity Wintergreen Resort Premiere Properties. The deal gives Roy Wheeler exclusive rights to advertise on the resort website and established the only real estate office within the centrally located Mountain Inn.

"It's kind of a logical thing," says Lloyd Williams, vice president of sales and marketing for Wintergreen Resort. Williams says other resorts– Kiawah Island in South Carolina and Pinehurst in North Carolina– have exclusive arrangements with one real estate firm. The arrangement benefits the agency– which gets first dibs on potential clients visiting the resort– while the resort receives a cut from the sales.

"We're very, very excited about it," says Roy Wheeler CEO Michael Guthrie, who oversees the 65-agent Roy Wheeler office. Guthrie, whose Ivy-based firm moved $267 million worth of Central Virginia property last year, will oversee the new office, to be staffed initially by an office manager and five or six Roy Wheeler agents who have committed to spending time each week in Nelson County.

But while Guthrie and Williams tout the new arrangement's advantages, not everyone is impressed.

"It's laughable," says Peter Farley, president of Wintergreen Real Estate, a company in business since 1973. "They're making it sound like they represent all of Wintergreen."

The key, says Farley, is the difference between Wintergreen as a community and Wintergreen Resort, a private club, a sort of elevated Farmington or Glenmore. Farley says the new venture is about pushing memberships in the club.

While all community members and their guests can pay to use the amenities, some property owners choose to buy a membership for $17,000 plus additional monthly fees to cover perks like prime parking, golf, pools, and the fitness center.

Guthrie confirms that his office will work not only on listing properties, but on improving the marketing and sales of club memberships.

"As [the Resort] begins to expand over the next several years, the benefits will grow," says Guthrie, calling the sale of more memberships, a "positive thing."

Not everyone thinks so. One Wintergreen property owner and club member penned a critical letter to the Wintergreen Property Investors board last week.

"Competition in the real estate market is good; it makes agents work harder," writes Stan Rose, who bought property in Wintergreen in 2002 and paid the membership fee so that his grown children and guests could use the amenities when they visit. Rose would like to see more membership benefits and closer attention to managing what's already there.

"Public opinion of real estate agents," Rose writes, "is one step above 'used car salesmen.' If a prospective buyer feels pressured to join [Wintergreen Resort], they will run."

Guthrie and Williams deny planning to use high pressure tactics to sell memberships. Rather, they say, they simply want more people to be aware of the perks– such as the newly opened $4 million Wintergarden spa and fitness center– when they buy property. 

And Wintergreen CEO Bob Ashton disputes Rose's claim that the Resort puts membership sales over service. "If people don't believe in the benefits of a membership, they won't buy one," he says. 

Both Guthrie and Williams say other real estate firms are welcome to continue to market properties in Wintergreen, and Guthrie says he looks forward to developing a positive working relationship with other agents and firms.

 "We hope to be friendly competitors," says Guthrie, "sharing information."

Farley says he holds no grudge against Guthrie, and he's not worried that the exclusive arrangement will leave his firm and others out in the cold. Last year, he points out, his firm completed 1,330 home transactions at Wintergreen while Roy Wheeler completed eight.

"You build your reputation through your history," says Farley, who has been involved in Wintergreen-area real estate since before the ski slopes opened. "I hope in the next 30 years they can develop a sizable business. I've been there, done it, and I know what it takes. It's one transaction at a time."

Roy Wheeler now has first dibs on property trades along the ridges and hollows of Wintergreen.


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