Don Wilford’s ‘Swan Song’ is a Chance to Create Little City

Tamaya, a new Mediterranean-style development in Jacksonville, will be Don Wilford’s largest project and, he figures, the place he’ll build his last house.

“Having the ability to put more than 1,000 homes on one of the most pristine locations in Jacksonville, that is my swan song, it’s my legacy to the community,” said Wilford, who is the North Florida division president of ICI Homes and the builder behind the new neighborhood at Beach and Kernan boulevards.

There will be other projects before Wilford, who turns 60 this month, retires. He’s slated to break ground on Siena at Town Center in Nocatee this summer and on two other unnamed developments starting in 2016.

Tamaya is the project for which Wilford has unleashed his creativity, with its eight new floor plans out of the 16 available, offering Tuscan, Spanish and Mediterranean styles.

“It’s an opportunity to create a little city, one that has inter-connectivity to shopping and schools. You can’t build dreams like that on 50 lots or 100 lots,” he said.

And, because of its scope — four neighborhoods at 250 sites each — houses will still be going up in Tamaya years after Wilford has stepped down.

His dad’s right-hand man

A third-generation home builder, Wilford grew up in the trade without ever being pushed into it.

While his father worked at construction sites, Wilford as a child played in the sand with his dump truck.

From the time he was 11, he worked beside his dad every day. At 15, he was specializing in skills like carpentry, concrete work, roofing and drywall. His father switched him between disciplines every few weeks.

“At the time I thought my dad just needed help in that area, but as I got older, I realized he was training me,” he said.

By the time he graduated high school, Wilford figured he’d had about three college educations in the construction business.

At 20, he worked independently for the first time as the construction supervisor of an apartment complex. By 25, he was running five apartment projects and managing a team of 50 workers.

His father’s tutoring and reputation as a hard worker opened doors. Because of that, mentorship became a guiding principle in Wilford’s career and, later in life, in his nonprofit work.

“I’ve always been given opportunities to be a right-hand man,” Wilford said. “I was my dad’s right-hand man, and that led to my first opportunity as an apartment developer.

As ICI’s North Florida division president, Wilford still fills the role of right hand-man to company owner Mori Hosseini.

When Wilford first came to work for ICI Homes 19 years ago, he told Hosseini he wanted to build a different type of product, one that focused on quality in design.

“So 15 years ago (Hosseini) said, ‘OK everybody builds the same stucco box. I’m sending you to California. Look at some ideas out there and bring them back home,’” Wilford said.

After California, there were more trips, including several overseas.

A chance to build something unique

The ventures inspired developments like Jacksonville’s Highland Glen development, with its disciplined English-Scottish-European architecture. Many other ICI Homes communities followed a theme, such as country or old-world style. But, each house was also unique.

A half-dozen floor plans could be combined with another half-dozen elevations. Rooms could be added or subtracted. Interior features were selected according to customer preference.

“We have a lot of details and there’s a lot of extra cost that go into our houses because of things like tile roofs. But that’s who we are,” Wilford said. “I’ve never had an interest in doing production houses.”

Tamaya is the natural outcome of a lifetime of customized building. Coming on the heels of the worst housing recession in memory, it’s also a sort of redemption for Wilford.

Builders enjoyed years of 20 percent growth in the early 2000s, then were forced to replace them with years of layoffs. During that time ICI Homes in Jacksonville, like many builders, lost 70 percent of its workforce.

“I felt I had an obligation to the employees who stuck with me all those years without raises, now that I could see where to make money again,” Wilford said. “I was going to stay with it and develop some new plans and new designs.”

It’s those designs that Wilford believes will make a lasting impression on Jacksonville, more so than the man who is

behind them.

“I can see myself walking down the street in Tamaya when I’m 80. I’ll meet someone and I’ll say, ‘I built all of these houses.’ And, they’ll say, ‘Yeah, sure you did,’” he said with a laugh.

Article written by Carole Hawkins, Staff Writer – Financial News & Daily Record