Putting pieces together: Man assembles land for development

Mike Skolnick stands not far from the eastern boundary of the Stonegate subdivision, a 150-acre parcel he pieced together for Raylee Homes, which plans to build 700 houses there. Nearby are Salcido I and II, Melon Ridge, Broadmoor Heights and Ocotillo subdivisions, in various stages, with one soon to break ground.

We’ve all put together puzzles before, knowing a 500-piece puzzle may occupy a rainy weekend and a 1,000-piece puzzle may sit on a table for several weeks before it’s completed.

But what’s it like to complete a 150-acre puzzle, with “only” 92 pieces?

Ask Mike Skolnick, 65 and the qualifying broker for Excalibur Realty & Investments Inc. He’s the man charged with assembling large pieces of property, like Stonegate and some adjacent subdivisions, plus Unit 10, which will be the site for a new Rio Rancho Public Schools elementary, and, ideally, the next Cabezon or Loma Colorado-type neighborhood.

“Doing this work is brain damage,” is how he puts it.

There is no college curriculum to prepare someone for a job like this. Skolnick basically learned the process through the school of hard knocks, along with the Rotary mantra of “Service before self” that he adheres to, which leads to his integrity.

Like many Rio Ranchoans, Skolnick was unhappily hijacked here by his parents, initially impressed by AMREP Southwest presentations in New York in the 1960s. He did convince them to wait until he graduated high school back in Queens, and then, as his folks moved to the Land of Enchantment in 1973 — after buying multiple pieces of land in Rio Rancho Estates — he joined the U.S. Air Force.

When he exited the military, he attended the University of Albuquerque under the G.I. Bill, and then was “sidetracked” into the family’s Indian jewelry business, by then named Canarsie Trading Post, after a neighborhood in Brooklyn.

“I loved it,” he said, deciding in the late 1970s to pursue real estate.

He obtained his license in 1978 and founded his own firm, Excalibur, in the 1980s. In 1983, Skolnick recalled, he was tasked with his first “assemblage,” contracting with 19 land/home owners in Albuquerque’s South Valley to get them to sell their property for an eventual shopping center.

There were some sticky parts to that assemblage, such as a zone change and wording in the original deeds that the land could not be used for commercial purposes.

Skolnick prevailed, although the entire process took four years.

He needed only six months to assemble the 150-acre Stonegate piece. That challenge began in 2004.

The total price paid to assemble the nearly one-section of land: $6 million. The original owner defaulted the land to the bank, from which Scott Grady of Raylee Homes purchased it.

Working to accumulate land for the Los Diamontes neighborhood in Unit 10, Skolnick said he contacted 67 owners. The city leaders approved that project in 2015, which he said took about 90 seconds and “I sat in total disbelief.”

He’s not done with Los Diamontes, though, saying he’ll be working hard to fill the 60 acres allotted for the business park, seeking economic-based businesses, with help from the Sandoval Economic Alliance and the local real estate community.

The key to acquiring tracts of land to complete these puzzles, Skolnick has learned, is contacting the owner of the largest parcel first. The most-difficult contract is usually with the last of the land owners, in Stonegate’s case, a savvy local lady who owned two acres “in the middle.”

Some of the land had changed hands. Other parcels had been in the same family for two or three generations with the owners still back east, deciding they didn’t want to move west for the advertised “360 days of sunshine” a year.

A lot of detective work goes into it, including title searches and assessor’s records.

And when someone calls a landowner in the middle of the night, seeking to buy that property, what do you think they’re thinking: Oil under my land? Gold or silver? Can I become a millionaire?

“There’s always the skeptics,” he said, although he estimated, “About 80 percent are phenomenal, lovely people.”

Skolnick is paid a commission based on each sale, and don’t even ask him if it’d behoove him to allow a landowner to keep asking for more: He comes back with that four-syllable word, “integrity.”

Knowing that, don’t expect him to fudge when he plays golf — he has a handicap of five.