By Arthur Lightbourn
“Don’t you ever smile?”
Veteran developer Jim Watkins credits those few words with changing his life.
He was a freshman in high school at the time, transplanted into a town he didn’t like, and surrounded by students he couldn’t befriend.
“I was always getting into fights,” he recalls.
Nothing like the city he had moved from, Alhambra, California, in Los Angeles County, where he was a top dog among his buddies.
But, in this farm town of Visalia in the San Joaquin Valley with its dry, hot 100-degree-plus summers and tule foggy winters, he was the unhappy new kid on the block.
His entrepreneurial father had bought a gasoline bulk plant in Visalia.
So when a girl at school commented on his grumpy behavior, he didn’t like that at all, but it got him thinking.
“I went back home and I thought, ‘I’ve been a complete ass for six months. It’s gotten me nowhere. I might as well accept this is my fate. I’m going to have to live in this dump.’
“I returned to school the next day and started smiling. That weekend,” he remembers, “I got invited to a party. I wouldn’t trade those next four years in high school for any other time in my entire life.
“Attitude, attitude, attitude,” he concluded. “Everything is attitude.”
Watkins is the founder and president of Winners Circle Resorts International, Inc., a company headquartered in Del Mar that specializes in the development, sales, marketing and management of vacation timeshares.
Over the past five decades, he built more than 1,000 homes, 50 apartment complexes, plus numerous hotels, including the L’Auberge Del Mar, commercial properties and luxury timeshare resorts.
He is a past president of the Del Mar Chamber of Commerce (1973, 1974), past president of the Del Mar Rotary Club (1980), recipient of the Del Mar Person of the Year Award (1990); and, as an avid supporter of community youth services, a 12-year YMCA board member, a 16-year board member of the Boys and Girls Club, and recipient of the Boys and Girls Club Living Legend Award in 2006.
We interviewed Watkins recently at the Carlsbad Inn Beach Resort and Hotel, one of Watkins’ original properties where he was in the process of completing $4 million in building renovations and new landscaping to coincide with its Inn’s 25th anniversary.
When he bought the Inn property 30 years ago, it consisted of several run-down cottages, a wedding chapel, and a vacant residence. It was zoned for apartments and commercial. And what Watkins was developing at the time were vacation timeshares.
Using his considerable powers of persuasion, he received approval from the city and coastal commission to transform the ocean property into a combination 62-room hotel flanked by 150 vacation timeshare apartments.
Looking around his renovated Carlsbad Inn Beach Resort and Hotel, Watkins said: “When I see places like this which I created 30 years ago, when I see all the people having a good time, that’s what it’s all about.”
Watkins is 79, an erect 6-foot-1, with a trim 178-pound physique that he keeps tuned and in shape playing tennis, skiing, “doing weights” and benefiting from his wife’s home-cooked, health-conscious meals.
He has lived in Del Mar for the past 42 years.
But he well remembers his roots.
“I still call myself an Okie,” he says proudly.
He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
When he was six months old, his parents packed him and his two sisters along with the family’s belongings into their old car in the midst of the Great Depression and made their way out of Dust Bowl-devastated Oklahoma in search of a better life.
Their sojourn took them first back to his parents’ home state of Missouri, where his entrepreneurial father published a small newspaper that eventually failed, back to Oklahoma where their car broke down and his father found work managing apartments while his mom ran a donut shop, and then finally on to California, where, in Alhambra, Watkins Sr. leased a gas station until gas rationing ended that, worked in an aircraft plant until the war was over, and, subsequently, bought and ran a gasoline bulk plant in the San Joaquin Valley town of Visalia.
Initially, at the University of Oregon, Watkins intended to study education and become a teacher, but switched to business, earning his degree in 1953.
The reason he switched, he explained, was after he began smiling in high school, he decided to build a youth center in Visalia. He got the support of his high school principal and others, but couldn’t raise the money. In his first summer home from university, he got a job at the Visalia Lumber Company, and told them of his dream.
“They said, ‘We give you the lumber, and we can talk to the concrete people.’
“Before the summer was over, we built the youth center,” he said. “It was through the entrepreneurs and people who were in business that made it happen. So my father suggested, ‘You might be able to do more for youth by becoming an entrepreneur than a teacher.’”
He took his father’s advice.
After college, he was drafted into the Army and deployed to Korea as a corporal with the 7th Infantry, where he served in combat in the battle for Jane Russell Hill against Chinese troops and was awarded The Bronze Star.
When he completed his two years’ military service, he joined an ailing lumber company in Hanford, Calif., that his father had acquired an interest in and using his college-acquired business skills, he helped turn the company around.
During slow times at the lumber yard, he put the staff to work building houses in the lumber yard, transferring them onto lots he bought in town, and selling them for $6,500 (at a $3,000 profit).
“I became a major developer of tract housing in Hanford, doing about 200 homes a year,” he said.
In 1956, at 26 years old, branching out, he built his first motel, the El Rancho in Hanford, followed by the Four Diamond Inn in Morro Bay, the Gold Key in Fresno, and the Congress Inn in Laguna Beach.
And then, because of a contract for 100 homes for U.S. Navy personnel in Hampton, California, that turned sour when it was discovered that a planned airfield had to be postponed because of unstable soil conditions and, simultaneously, his construction company in Hanford that he had entrusted to his former Army sergeant ran into trouble, “I went broke,” he said.
He remembers looking for work with various contractors, but getting turned down because they thought he had too much experience and probably wouldn’t stay.
“I had never looked for a job before in my life,” he recalled, “and I had holes in my shoes going to the various contractors. And that’s when I finally went to the Del Webb Corporation in Phoenix. I guaranteed I would stay with them for 18 months and I did, as a property administrator and investment analyst. And made a lot of money for them.
“But I just couldn’t take the corporate structure….which is, ‘Just don’t rock the boat.’ I like to rock boats. I like making things happen.”
When he resigned, he considered either living in Lake Tahoe, Santa Barbara or Del Mar. He selected Del Mar because he remembered having traveled through it years earlier and becoming captivated by it seaside location and the old hotel that had since been torn down.
“And I decided, that’s where I wanted to live for the rest of my life.”
“When I moved to Del Mar in 1968 (he was 35 at the time) I had $1,000 to my name, we had four kids, two dogs, and a cat, no job, didn’t know a soul, but, fortunately, I was able in the winter to rent a four-bedroom house on the beach for $225 a month.”
To earn a living, “I got a hold of some local real estate people and said: ‘Here’s what I can do. I can go out a look at a piece of property, determine what the value is and what the highest and best use of that property is, and give you some conceptual plans on what can be done with it.”
He came upon a property in Solana Beach that had been zoned for apartments, but over a period of 10 years, potential developers had tried unsuccessfully to get approval to build because they were trying to pack too many units onto the property causing neighbors to object.
With no money down, he got an option to buy, provided that he could come up with a plan that met with city approval, and could find investors to finance the project.
He did both and, in 1969, built the 194-unit Turf Club Apartments in Solana Beach above the Del Mar Racetrack.
He was on his way.
Throughout the 1970s, he concentrated on office/shop complexes, apartments, condos, and hotels, including the Del Mar Inn.
In the 1980s, he continued building hotels, including the Horton Park Plaza Hotel in downtown San Diego, and became the top developer of timeshares in Southern California with projects in Del Mar, Carlsbad, Oceanside, San Clemente, and Coronado.
“Being a developer is something like being a porpoise,” he says. “Every once in awhile you jump out of the water and you’re up there and the sun is shining, but most of the time you’re under water,” he laughs. “But it’s exciting. I love what I’m doing. It’s not from the monetary gain. It’s from the challenge of creating something.”
Toward the end of the 1980s, he built the 123-unit luxury hotel, L’Auberge Del Mar.
“I built it in 1989, tried to hold on to it for five years, but my 18 percent interest on loans was $6 million a year and I had to sell it in 1994. I lost almost $10 million on L’Auberge. I didn’t file bankruptcy, but everything I had was gone.
“Fortunately, I’ve always been able to recover and make the best out of what is in front of me.”
Bouncing back, in 1997, he built the Dolphin’s Cove Resort in Anaheim.
In 2002, his company, Winners Circle Resorts, sold the last of its development properties (three blocks at the pier in Oceanside) and now focuses on managing its investment properties.
His wife of 55 years, Carol, died of cancer in 2006. He has since remarried.
He and his wife, Bernadette, live in one of the condos behind L’Auberge Del Mar within walking distance to his office in Stratford Square which he built in 1970 and still owns.