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Oral History Interview with Central Florida Developer James Brown

My name is James B. Brown. I am originally from Texas. I was born in Wichita, Texas December 14, 1933. Week before I was five years old my parents moved us back to their home place which was in Freestone County which was in Fairfield. I graduated from Fairfield High School in 1951 and immediately joined the U.S.. Air Force. That’s where I got started….

Mr. Jim Brown is the recipient of The James B. Greene Award the highest honor bestowed by the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission. The award annually recognizes an individual who has contributed significantly to the region’s economic growth. In 1996 Mr. Brown received the award in recognition for his work as the developer of Orlando Central Park. Listen as he tells the history of Orlando Central Park and Lockheed Martin’s contribution to our community in this oral history at his home on August 21, 2015.

LISTEN Part I  (16:36)


What was a typical Sunday like for you growing up?

Well, we did not have to work the fields on Sunday unless it was a real emergency like gathering a crop that was about to be rained out or something, because my mother was a country Baptist and she took all 12 of us kids to church on Sunday. Sometimes we’d walk for miles to church. Otherwise then that, we’d still have the country chores to do because we fed our own chickens and raised our own hogs and cattle and we had our own milk cows so we had to get up on Sunday morning and we had to do the chores before we come back to this wonderful breakfast my mother would cook and get ready for Sunday School or anything like that. Sunday afternoon was climbing trees, playing ball, having fist fights with brothers and sisters and neighbors and just getting some relaxation time horseback riding. We always kept both draft horses and saddle horses and we had most of the time some jenny’s and jack’s. Some of them were very gentle and fun to ride. I had a great time as a child.

My parents were first of all farmers and where I came from that included basically ranching, that we had our own herd of range cattle which we raised for sale to the market. And we also had our own herd of milk cows which we milked ourselves and processed the milk and had our own butter and buttermilk and sweet milk…. We ate well, not fancy, but we always had plenty of nourishing food. Of course, the reason for that was we raised a lot of it. Part of our operation was, in addition to our vegetable gardening for our own consumption, we did truck farming. We raised watermelons and cantaloupes and peas and tomatoes and other kinds of vegetables which we gathered and sold to other people for local consumption. Sometimes we would sell like watermelons and cantaloupes to trucks to be hauled away to markets in the big cities.

Air Force and College

My father was turning 40 right at the time of World War II. Of course, we already had ten kids in the family, but my father and my oldest brother answered the draft call at the same time. Of course, they threw my father out, not because he couldn’t’t pass the test and be a good soldier, but they said they couldn’t’t  afford to keep him because he had too many dependents. So they never took him. My oldest brother was drafted into the army and trained and very soon he was in North Africa with the U.S.. Army. He was a U.S.. Army truck driver. If you saw the movie Red Ball Express or something like that, that’s what he did in the Army all the way through Sicily and Italy. And when the war was over he was in central France.

My two brothers younger than him in the summer of ’43 both went to the U.S.. Navy. One of them was a draftee, went in as a sailor and they took him to boot camp in California. He trained and they put him on a ship and sent him to the South Pacific. They didn’t’t even get a leave to come home after boot camp. That was in July and August of ’43. The other brother was with us on the farm that summer about a week. Somewhere about the middle of July he got his call. He’d already signed up for naval cadets and they had him on a waiting list. So he got his call and he went through naval aviation training. And he was actually on the carrier in the Pacific for the war when VJ Day happened. So they turned him out and signed him up on the reserve. In 1950, they called him back and put him in Korea, flying ADS in Korea….

I went in the U.S.. Air Force for four years right out of high school and I served one year in Korea and I finished my service at Grandview Air Force Base at Kansas City, Missouri in charge of the radar and armament section…. Then I went to Texas A & M stayed there two years and I got a baccalaureate degree in electrical engineering. Went to work in Dallas. Stayed there five years.

Showalter Flying Service welcomes people to Orlando, Herndon Airport, circa 1960.

Then we had two babies and we picked up and moved to Florida in March of 1963. We’ve lived right here in this neighborhood ever since.

Dallas Real Estate Development

I worked for a real estate development company. I never pursued – I was an honor graduate in electrical engineering – but I never pursued that because I got offered a job as staff engineer for a real estate company in Dallas and I just decided that’s what I would do. So I stayed there five years and then got invited to come to Florida to start a new development here called Orlando Central Park and I was second chair in that operation. Then twenty years later my boss got old and died and they made me president so I finished the development until I retired.

Martin Orlando

Actually, it was my boss who hired me. [Martin Marietta Company] They hired him. And he brought me with him as second chair. And I was sort of vice president in charge of development construction. And he was the executive. He was the president. His background was more in finance and sales. So we worked as a team. It worked out good. What was his name? Ralph Breum…. he offered me a job and I went home and told my wife and she said, “Yes.” And we came to Florida.

We arrived here March 15, 1963. And started from what was swamps and rattlesnakes, Miss Day’s cow pasture out there. Orlando was the perfect definition of wonderful small town America when I came here.

Photo of Sand Lake Road after the road construction was complete, circa early 1960s. VIEW June 20, 1957 photo of digging the road for the Martin Plant, known today as Sand Lake Road.

If it could have just stayed exactly like it was and I could have made a good living it would have been wonderful. But guys like me and other developers with all that was going on, things started happening, building. Since March of ’63 it’s been just a storm of growth and development in Central Florida. You realize that Disney and all that came after we were here. So it’s been a very interesting time.

LISTEN Part II (20:37)


The Glenn L. Martin Company plant site located four and a half miles south of Orlando on Orange Blossom Trail, 1956-1957. In 1956 the company purchased approximately 12 square miles of land for $1,950,000. They also donated 30 acres of land for three school sites. By 1961, Martin Marietta Corporation, Aerospace Orlando, employed 10,500 people with a payroll total of $71.5 million, the largest single employer in Florida.

The Neighborhood

[Martin Marietta was already here.] They already had the plant here and they definitely had a major impact, wonderfully so. But it just so happened that at the time I came those folks had finished a lot of their contracts and they were laying off for a year outward and the community was in a panic, really. The house I bought right outside my driveway and three doors up there, three bedroom subdivision house, very typical of everything you see that was built at that time here. I believe that house was about two to three years old when I bought it. It had been vacant for several months and I paid like 21 or 22 thousand dollars. We lived there comfortably for about ten and a half years. But then we had another baby and didn’t’t have an extra bedroom, so we had to build this other place. So we bought the vacant lot and moved around the corner.

Central Florida ranch homes are shown in this 1963 information booklet created by Martin Marietta Orlando.

But you understand, what I was doing in my career had no real connection with the aerospace company. Yes, the fact that they were hiring or firing had an impact on the local economy. But my endeavor was totally separate from Martin of Orlando, the aerospace people. The corporation just took a couple thousand acres that was in excess put that into a development company and that’s what Mr. Breum and I were developing. It just happened that the thing was when they were kind of flat we came here, and the market wasn’t’t hot for us for a while either. But pretty soon we started making some deals.

Orlando Central Park created by The Martin Marietta Corporation

The Martin Marietta affinity for Central Florida seems enduring. The Corporation created Orlando Central Park 20 years ago on 4,200 acres of its original land holdings as a commercial, light-industrial and distribution park. OCP completed its first building in November 1963 and through the years has added a new business structure every 47 days… Some 600 acres of land have been granted cost-free by the Martin Marietta Corporation for construction in Orlando Central Park of the Orange County Convention / Civic Center… Excerpt from Martin Marietta Today, Number 3, 1982, pages 3-4.

Orlando Central Park

First building that we built in Orlando Central Park was a 3,000 square foot office and sales office and demonstration room for general equipment. I said, 3,000 square feet. Not 30,000 to 100,000 now. It’s about the size of my house. It was an important deal. The first transaction that we made was not that. That was the first building we built for a purchaser. The first land transaction was the Xerox Corporation and we put them right up front on South Orange Blossom Trail because they built. Now we did not build for them. They sold the site and they had their design/build arrangement already worked out. Pretty nice to hang Xerox at your front door in 1963 and ’64.

[Martin] they were looking for a large site somewhere tentatively looking at Central Florida. What’s happening at the Cape, the whole world’s happening over here. So being the businesses they were in, and growing all the time, they probably sounded to their leadership at that time like the place they ought to be. Disney had not been heard of so they bought big acres. They bought about, I think, about 5,000 acres way out there. There was no I-4. Sand Lake Road was a little two lane country road.

June 20, 1957 photo of the construction of Sand Lake Road, the new road for the Martin Plant. Paul’s Truck Stop which was located on Orange Blossom Trail can be seen in the background.

So they were way out on the edge of things. So they were able to put together a five thousand plus package of acreage at a very attractive price and then use – some of it they never used – there’d been pine trees waiting because you never knew in those days what kind of new contracts might come up or what kind of space they might need. Well, somewhere along the way they decided they didn’t need a couple of thousand and that’s when they hired a real estate consultant out of New York and they recommended it be developed and marketed as an industrial office park; and that’s when they hired my boss and he hired me. They set us up in a separate company to do the real estate thing.

Tech Industry

Well, I think that was kind of the beginning of that age because tying it in with Martin’s location there. That was ahead of my time. But see the Cape [Cape Canaveral] was happening over here.

Things were really beginning to churn. And then three years later after I came here Disney announced – and that was a boom, boom.

Aerial View of Construction of Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort Showing the Magic Kingdom in the Background

None of us really knew what that meant at the time. We were happy and scared and so excited we couldn’t understand it. Because Orlando was not a tourist town. None of us knew anything about tourism and hospitality.

Tourist Trish Crabbe gets a kiss at the Sea World “Yankee Doodle Whale” show in Orlando.

As it turned out we ended up marketing a lot of property along International Drive that fronts I-4 where the Orange County Convention Center is.

Orange County Convention Center

We donated – I signed the deed – for the donation of the original site for the Orange County Convention Center. That was good for the community and it was good for us as a bellwether tenant and attractor for the balance of the properties there. It was a very important deal. The community was beginning to grow and Disney now is in ’63 so that kind of stirred everything here. There’d already been, I’m trying to think of the time schedule. But the county made a run at having a convention center type facility built and it failed. And in that process, we’d offered them a site so if they got it passed, the necessary legislation, and authorization to raise the tax and do the money, they’d have a site to build.

Then, they didn’t’t call it a convention center – connotation – community center and convention space. Because it had to sound like it was going to be very meaningful to the local population as well as the visiting population. They didn’t get the first deal passed, but the county administrator, I mean, we offered them a site along with that first deal. The county administrator, Jim Harris, told me, “Don’t forget about it because we’re going to be back. This is going to happen some way, it has to happen.” Because then, they did the deal where they got approval and a part of that was having advantageous sites on which to locate the new convention/civic center. And in order to help promote the deal, we ran a campaign- I don’t know we spent 40 to 50 thousand dollars in an advertising campaign. And I probably still got one of my stickers somewhere. Bumper sticker said: “I’m for it.” That means, the I-4 site, which is my site. So we had a lot of fun going through that election and they ended up preferential to my site. Well, a little time had gone by and we realized the original site wasn’t the right place or the size. So we just slid it down to the corner where the big center now sits. It’s kind of L shaped. So you had deeper property and more acres.

So what we did is we ended up donating the first site. I didn’t have corporate authority to give them any more than that. But I had authority to sell real estate. We made a contract where we gave them the original 60 acres or whatever it was and option to buy like 25 over here and 25 over here adjacent at a very advantageous “give me” price. That’s the way that deal got made.

The Peabody Hotel

We didn’t have any hotels around there. It was out there by itself. We tried to get people to do a deal. To build a hotel where The Peabody Hotel is today. Me and my company, we were a small outfit. We were real estate developers and sellers and we knew nothing about the hospitality industry. We didn’t know anything about hotels and motels so we ended up partnering with the Bells Family out of Memphis, Tennessee to build The Peabody Hotel. They had The Peabody brand name in Memphis and had their tradition of The Peabody ducks in the lobby and so forth. And they’re very fine people and they’re very experienced in a lot of things that I didn’t know anything about. And we ended up making a deal with them. We put in the land and they put in some money and then together through the partnership we built The Peabody Hotel. So that was a lot of learning for me and very important to our development to our associates and to the community. So it was an awesome time and a lot of fun and a lot of excitement. And some time, I don’t know ten years down the road, we sold our interest in the hotel. When I retired our company still didn’t’t have an interest in ownership. But it served its purpose. We sold off our interest in the adjacent property quite attractively. So that was just part of an interesting time out there.

Sand Lake Road

Well, all of that stuff basically that we were doing was new to me. And what I was learning, and what I learned in maturity at that time was to accomplish something significant that you don’t necessarily understand yourself, you’d better partner with somebody who is trustworthy and who has the knowledge and experience in that field, in that area, to do the job right. I’d say our Peabody Hotel was A+ in that regard. [That was one of the first hotels in that area?] Right near the center, yeah. Up at the north end of our development where the Sand Lake Road comes out, they were building hotels and so forth. And north of there, catering to the hospitality industry. But there wasn’t anything like a convention hotel. See all that stuff that you see down there is new. And they’re still building. When we took the county officials and the community leadership down there to see the site where  the convention center – before there was any road in to it- you could go down I-4 and look at it from over there and you could fly over in an airplane and see it, but it had been fenced off – security fence – because of the defense plant over there.

So in order to show that property, we had Hubbard put a crew down there with a bulldozer and just kind of bulldoze a road right away down through there. We delayed that. We thought we were going to have a road. Just a put it all the way down Sand Lake Road and back out to the Beeline. So we really didn’t have anything more than a jeep trail in there to have county officials and commissioners and people get in there and look at it… I remember making some tours. We had officials and community officials come in and look at it. I think there was a big bus that was linking to three sites. There were three or four sites that various  owners had offered as a site for the convention center. So there was a big bus tour all of us offered our county officials, community leaders, and industry leaders. That was pretty interesting and the chatter on that bus was pretty good…. But we had a lot of fun, you know. And they ended up selecting our site….

I just read in the paper this week that the leadership at the center is telling the county commission you’d better be dedicating some of this tax money to renovation and upgrades of the center in several phases. You know that stuff don’t last forever and the organizations that they host, their needs hold fast to numbers, to quality of facility, and kind of facility changes and evolves. So I expect you’re going to see a lot of upgrade and changes in modification coming out there.

LISTEN Part III (19:41)


Martin Marietta Company

The people that hired Mr. Breum [Martin Marietta Company] and he then hired me and brought me here; they had not developed suburban and office parks. They’d done big city development and built the best weapons system in the world and things like that. But they hired Breum based on the recommendation from a three generation real estate group in Dallas. Because he’d been there with Brooke Holler and Empire Central. The development that Mr. Windsor owned, really took it from bottom length farming and cow pasture to this office park, industrial park, some rail served, some not, was really on the leading edge of development at that time….

A large area, planned utilization was new. My owner there was really kind of on the leading edge. And I had the privilege to work there for five years. That’s where I got my graduate degree. Work. Work. Work…. Mr. Breum had  experience in finance and development. And, of course, I had four years under him and under our owner there. One thing that is so important about my time there and coming out of school with an engineering degree not marketing, public relations or general education. See when I went through school at A & M I didn’t understand what it meant to be an educated man. I went there to get a technical degree so I could get a job. Now, as I worked in Dallas, worked for a very wealthy man that owned that real estate company and his family had larger far reaching interests. The first six months or so that I was there I did, I carried critical documents to important people. The guy that owned the world I’d go to his office and get him to sign papers and meet his secretary and some of his staff. And just by osmosis meeting various people that was my graduate school….

The Martin Company: “Be Good Citizens in the Community”

And then when they sent us here we got very sophisticated instructions from our appropriate owners – The Martin Company. It’s like this: “You go to Orlando.” They told Mr. Breum and I: “You all be good citizens in the community. Represent us well in the community and make money out of these swamps.”

And now that’s very big and sophisticated. It didn’t take a catalog this thick to tell us what to do. That’s what they told us to do and that’s what we did. Part of it. We had good partners and we did good things in the community. But those instructions I told you about I got them way before The Peabody. We got those instructions from the Lockheed Martin headquarters. And how do you like those constraints. Let’s go see what you can do…. Now taking the seriousness and the freedom of that instruction is, that’s what allowed us to build up Orlando Central Park, Plaza International.

The timing was good because there was thing’s happening here. The new world was coming. My wife she thought for five years we were going back to Texas. I never thought for a moment we were going back to Texas. Finally, after about five years she realized this is where we live. This is where our kids grew up. Our youngest child was born here. We brought the other two from Texas.

Serving in the Community

One of the highlights for me was was working and doing some things in the community. And see that was part of my job because they said, “Be Good Citizens.” And I had the privilege, since we were owned by Lockheed Martin, then it was The Martin Company, when I first came here, they had already established, they had banking relationships and a lot of their people were already in the community serving. So it wasn’t like we had to spend a year or two getting introduced. We were well received. We were quickly embraced and brought into things.

Don Senterfitt

And my attorney was Don Senterfitt and he knew everybody in town, good, bad, and otherwise and was highly respected in the profession and in the community. And he took me by the hand and gave me one or two words of advice. One of them I’m going to tell you and the other one I’m not. He said, after we got to working together, he said, “I want you to work your way through the chairs in The Chamber of Commerce. I want to see you president of The Orlando Chamber. I was in ’82…. But it’s interesting that a person like him was here that had the breadth of knowledge and the feel. He could just feel the pulse of the community, would adopt me and coach me and help me. And he and I negotiated a lot of real estate deals…. And I have sat in his office resting and looking out the window. Maybe taking a nap and listening once and a while. And he’s negotiating on the phone for hours.  Never that I was aware of or could understand did he not improve the deal for me. Now the other guy, the guy on the other end thought he was chiseling in representing his client and making money. But Don Senterfitt improved every deal that he negotiated. So I had some good teachers. I had a lot of help along the way….

LISTEN Part IV (18:11)


 People and Relationships

It’s not what that matters it’s who. It’s not things, it’s people. Yeah, my house is important cause it shelters us and it’s got an air conditioner. My son’s car is important to him, but it’s the people that’s important. There’s lots of good people. There’s lots of no good people. So people you have to grade them and measure your relationship and conduct accordingly. But it’s people that matter….

So I became aware of what my strength was, is in people, people and relationships. And I built contacts and friends and that’s a two way street. So you do things that are proper to help things that are legitimate. To help people do good things. But you better have a “no” that’s stronger than your “yes” because you’re going to be asked about some deals sometimes. Somebody’s going to want you to do something that doesn’t meet your standards. When somebody puts me across my standards I say, “Nada. Not happening.” No matter where it is or who it is.

The Tourist Development Council

I had a lot of fun and met a lot of people and I think I was able to do a good job in both places when I was president of the Orlando Area Chamber of Commerce in 1982. And it was a transitional time in the community and we did a lot of things. And one of the things that came out of my time there, of which I’m very proud, was I’m the guy that appointed the committee, selected and appointed the committee, that created The Tourist Development Council. We had come out of that time when you’re this community and that community. The Chamber of Commerce had this and somebody else had that. But there was no authoritative, focused leadership. So, I appointed a committee….

Lockheed Martin’s Impact on the Community

I think they’ve had a tremendous impact from before I was here. I think what my company did has had a significant impact, but that total – Martin – the people, the educated people, they just smeared out all over Central Florida. No question. They are good citizens. They’re a good industry to have. Now because they were in defense and stuff, they’re senior level management weren’t able to necessarily do what I did. Because I had a whole different level, a whole different world to operate in. But they got people over there that nobody’s ever heard of that’s got better education and experience than I have. And they’re living and working in this community. There’s no question now that Lockheed Martin, it was the Martin Company when I came, and then Martin Marietta; there’s no question that they’ve been a real major mark on this community. Because of the big tourism thing a lot of that doesn’t show so much. Because see, I was here before tourism came. I think that what’s happened is, it’s made an awesome combination, really. Yes, the hospitality industry is different than working in the Martin plant or running some operation like that. But it’s all people and one feeds off the other….

LISTEN Part V (17:07)


Central Florida is the Good Life

What would we be like without UCF? What would we be like without Disney and Sea World?

Aerial view of Sea World of Florida’s $23 million marine-life park and America’s most elaborate.

What would we be like without the Orlando International Airport? So that’s endless. We are what we are because of all the different people and operations that we have here. There’s times when I could say, oh I loved Orlando when I first came here. I did. But I made about $14,000. a year. A year. Not a week, a year. Well, I can’t go a week on that now. So Central Florida is the good life, I think….

We’re still a young city. See sometimes we’re big. And we are a big metro area. But with this international airport, with new transportation, things that are happening, our connection with saltwater and the Cape. We’ve just now matured to the point that everyone in the world knows about it. When I first came to Orlando nobody knew about Orlando, Florida….

This is a wonderful place to live… Yes, I think we were fortunate to have the opportunity to come into this community at the time in its life that we did. And in spite of some of the rough spots we’re way ahead of average. We’re close to the top as far as quality of place to live.

Read The James B. Brown Story by Paul Halyard.

Interview: James Brown

Interviewer: Jane Tracy

Date: August 21, 2015

Place: Mr. Brown’s Orlando residence.               

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James Brown Oral History Interview Part I

Oral history interview with James Brown at his Orlando residence on August 21, 2015.

James Brown Oral History Interview Part II

Oral history interview with James Brown at his Orlando residence on August 21, 2015.

James Brown Oral History Interview Part III

Oral history interview with James Brown at his Orlando residence on August 21, 2015.

James Brown Oral History Interview Part IV

Oral history interview with James Brown at his Orlando residence on August 21, 2015.

James Brown Oral History Interview Part V

Oral history interview with James Brown at his Orlando residence on August 21, 2015.

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