Ritz developer: Grandiose plans rarely realized

History: Neil Fisher proposes building an Inner Harbor luxury hotel. But critics say his grand ideas elsewhere left more lawsuits than buildings.

November 21, 1999|By Michael James and Joe Mathews | Michael James and Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

On a downtown street, with the bright sunshine and a television camera on his face, Neil Fisher promised Maryland a lavish, $100 million Ritz-Carlton hotel, hundreds of jobs and a fortune for a charity aiming to "build back the glory of Baltimore."

His message appealed to many. "People need hope and something to dream for," he concluded in his pledge to help make Baltimore better.

But what the public didn't see on that October day were the other sides of Fisher: the tough-talking real-estate syndicator accused of multimillion-dollar fraud; the repeatedly bankrupt developer who says he likes the sport of being sued; the snakeskin-booted land dealer whose partner on the Ritz deal was once convicted alongside Maryland's most infamous swindler, Jeffrey A. Levitt.

And last but not least, the public couldn't see any of the fabulous hotel and waterfront projects he has repeatedly proposed up and down the East Coast.

That's because there's nothing to see. He never built one.

"It's easy to get into a deal," explains the 53-year-old Fisher, who has won citywide acclaim for proposing the first five-star hotel in Baltimore history. "But it's the smart guy who has the exit strategy."

His exits have left a path of fraud claims, bankruptcies, tax liens, corporate shells and disappointed people through Maryland, Florida, New York and beyond. Critics accuse Fisher of being the mastermind behind brilliantly complex land schemes that leave more lawsuits than buildings and at times feature partners with shadowy pasts in crime.

Since he arrived in Baltimore nine months ago, he has been welcomed by business and city leaders as an outsider with fresh ideas -- in addition to the Ritz, he says he wants to build the $150 million Wyndholme Village for deaf senior citizens in West Baltimore.

"I think Neil Fisher will be good for Baltimore," says Rebecca Hoffberger, director of the American Visionary Art Museum, which would be the Ritz's neighbor on the Inner Harbor. "If we let him, he will do a lot."

Maryland let him try before.

He proposed a resort city on the Potomac called Riviera, only to be dragged into court for deceiving investors. He pitched a plan for an "Inner Harbor" of Prince George's County only to see his partner successfully sued for fraud. He found a way to squeeze millions out of the Old Court Savings and Loan fiasco, when Marylanders were screaming in the streets to get back their deposits.

"I'm like a degenerate gambler," says the gruff but well-spoken son of a Harvard lawyer. "I just keep moving on to the next deal. The deal is what keeps me going."

When asked about his past, Fisher repeatedly says, "I have never been arrested, indicted or convicted." He insists that his intentions are pure and that he is a "messenger who brings tidings of great expectations" for Baltimore.

"The Ritz-Carlton and Wyndholme Village are set to become Baltimore's best-known landmark projects for the millennium, ushering the city into an entirely new stellar era of dynamic national prominence and international prestige," he says.

A week after being interviewed about his record as a developer, he called a news conference and pledged 5 percent of his Baltimore profits to local charities. Half the money would go to Sandtown Habitat for Humanity, an inner-city housing organization. Fisher said he could identify with the downtrodden.

"As a risk-taking developer and businessman, I've experienced hardship. Everyone needs a helping hand or second chance," he announced.

A slender, ruddy-faced man who loves fox hunting, Fisher makes his home in Palm Beach, Fla. He's on the road a lot, flying around the country to make deals. He drives leased Cadillacs and Jaguars, although in more flamboyant times he drove a Rolls-Royce.

There are signs of opulence in his life, but he tells judgment-collecting lawyers he never owns anything -- his $694,000 house, for instance, is owned by an investment company in his wife's name. She's Tamara Jeanne "T.J." Fisher, a 41-year-old diamond-clad beauty known in Palm Beach circles for a $113,000 vintage Howdy Doody puppet she bought two years ago.

"My wife is a very wealthy woman in her own right," Fisher says, although the source of her wealth isn't readily apparent from public records. "Through all of my life, I've been rich and poor, up and down."

Stuart Cornelius Fisher -- Neil is his nickname -- was born in Cumberland. His father served as an Air Force colonel for several years and moved the family often, with Neil graduating from an American high school in Paris.

From a young age, Fisher seemed to develop a taste for fast-moving, ritzy businesses. In the early 1970s, while going to California Western University School of Law in San Diego, he owned a dealership selling Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces. After graduation, he opted to open a real-estate company instead of taking the bar exam.

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