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Zac Cort: Restoring the Soul of Stockton

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The weight of the 2008 stock market crash was palpable across the country. In its wake, the housing market plummeted, resulting in thousands of foreclosures across the U.S. A sign perched inside a window at a local restaurant in downtown Stockton read “Service may be refused: this is not a hangout or a shelter.” It was a reminder to the community during the economic crisis that Stockton was slipping down further into the proverbial abyss.

In a downward spiral, unemployment rates doubled and violent crime was at an all-time high. In the midst of the recession, the city filed for Chapter 9. Stockton became known as the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy until Detroit filed in 2013. Both the 2008 housing market crash and the subsequent filing for bankruptcy resulted in a mass exodus of employees and spending cutbacks for the city. Stockton was no longer associated with the hustle and bustle that helped establish a prolific inland seaport on the San Joaquin River.

Impetus for Renewal
But a glimpse into the past is now a beacon for rebirth. After time, the city became a playground for creatives and savvy business entrepreneurs. Unique and bold murals started popping up in unexpected places. Business owners unwilling to give up on the beautiful city on the river began making their mark, establishing pop-up shops in unconventional locations. Retail businesses began to set up shop in underutilized spaces, turning traditional brick-and-mortar locations into local hotspots. The pioneers and innovators who call Stockton home were not ready to let the city’s reputation go down in flames. In fact, it was just the opposite. Those who were willing take a risk to change the status quo in Stockton began looking for solutions.

Among those willing to take a risk was real estate developer Zac Cort.

Born in Stockton and raised in the East Bay of San Francisco, Zac spent his formative years growing up in the East Bay area while visiting his father in Stockton on weekends and for summer visits. After high school, Zac began playing collegiate baseball at Long Beach State, where he would meet his future wife, Megan. He would later study at CSU Dominguez Hills, finishing his baseball career and graduating with a bachelor’s in business management. Early in his professional career he studied finance and the banking industry with vigor, working for industry giants Lehman Brothers and Bear Sterns. However, his connection to Stockton and his interest in residential and commercial real estate continued to pull him in an entrepreneurial direction. In 2006, Zac left the banking industry and created Ten Space, originally known as The Cort Group, with the philosophy that investing in both people and properties was the key to success.

The First Building
Even with his success in other cities and industries in Long Beach and San Diego, Zac still felt the desire to take a chance on the city that was described by Forbes in 2012 as one of the “Most Dangerous Cities in America.” Zac’s first step back into his hometown was his purchase of The Metro Building. He quickly he learned that he would have his work cut out for him. Living in Southern California, for three years Zac traveled back and forth to Stockton, sleeping on an air mattress inside The Metro and showering at a nearby gym as he slowly worked to rehab and refurbish the building. “During this period of my life, it was important to me to learn as much as I could about the city. I had to jump in and learn the pulse of the downtown and understand what was holding the city back,” he noted. While everyone else was formulating their own opinions about the city’s struggles, Zac was living it. However, after the years of commuting, Zac realized that moving to Stockton was inevitable. “Convincing my wife, Megan, to move to Stockton was the hardest deal I’ve ever had to close,” he laughed. As parents to boys Lincoln and Lennox, Zac and Megan are official Stocktonians. “There is nothing better than being with my boys every day and participating in all of their activities. Whether it’s a school performance or coaching Little League, there is no event I want to miss as they are my pride and joy.”

A Renaissance in the Making
Zac’s vision and experience provided the foundation for Ten Space to flourish and the company began to expand. In 2012, Zac’s longtime friend Tim Egkan joined the team, with Stockton native David Garcia following in 2013. From there, the young, innovative development company spearheaded multiple projects that would help catalyze the reinvention of downtown, reaffirming their ideas for the great city of Stockton. The successful renovation of The Metro provided the foundation for additional projects Zac and his team at Ten Space would tackle.

In 2014, Ten Space embarked on a full renovation of the Newberry Building, the former home of the Newberry Department Store. Ten Space worked to recruit several local businesses to occupy the building, breathing new life into the old, historic building. Local businesses such as Papa Urb’s Filipino Grill and the Child Abuse Prevention Council moved into the building, bringing the people of Stockton with them.

However, the anchor tenant of the Newberry Building was spearheaded not by Zac, but by Megan Cort herself. As a mother to two young boys, Megan realized that an important element of the revitalization of downtown would need to include childcare facilities for the growing 20,000-plus workforce. “I realized shortly after we moved to Stockton that childcare was an issue for those who worked and lived in downtown Stockton. There were virtually no options for daycare in the city,” shared Megan. With the help of the team, Megan created a cutting-edge, industrially designed educational facility known as The Campus Downtown, which offers affordable childcare for ages 18 months to 6 years with early childhood development options including half-day curriculums and extended care for parents who need full-time childcare. A much-needed bright spot for the neighborhood, the childcare facility provides an essential solution for families who live and work in Stockton.

Award-Winning Projects
As time went on, Stockton began to show signs of recovery. With numerous projects under way, Ten Space was honored with their first award for their work on the Newberry. Following the Newberry, the team launched Huddle, a 15,000-square-foot coworking space that became the center of innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity. Characterized by its fresh design concept and open-plan co-working environment, Huddle paved the way for similar projects to flourish.

Next on the team’s agenda was tackling the historic Belding Building, built in 1916, which sits in the heart of historic downtown Stockton. The transformation of the 102-year-old Belding Building was a crucial step toward revamping Weber Avenue. Featuring unique retail spaces, the Belding Building is now home to Stockton’s first nano brewery, Channel Brewing Company, and the eclectic farm-to-fork restaurant, Cast Iron Trading Company, while the top floors are used by some of Stockton’s most innovative individuals and companies.

The Open Window Project
Embarking on another opportunity, Ten Space would end up with their largest project to date. The Open Window Project brings 1,000 new homes and 400,000 square feet of retail and commercial space to the heart of downtown. The project encompasses both new construction plans and the rehabilitation of the historic buildings, keeping the beauty that characterizes downtown Stockton with modern upgrades to meet the growing needs of the community. In early 2016, with the city council applauding their efforts, the Open Window Project plan was unanimously approved. In the same year, the Open Window Project was awarded the Top Project for Urban Design in the state of California by the American Planning Association. However, as the team enjoyed their successes, they also encountered an enormous heartbreak. In 2015, Tim Egkan passed away. “It was devastating. He was more than a business partner; he was my best friend,” shared Zac. “I struggle with the loss of Tim every day. I don’t know if it will ever get better.” Even with this loss, Zac fought even harder, knowing that the best way to maintain Egkan’s legacy was to finish what the team started.

The Heartbeat of Downtown Stockton
The sheer mass of the city’s downtown was one of the biggest challenges Ten Space encountered. But Zac, never wavering from his vision for Stockton, pushed forward. He developed relationships with city planners, the rail commission and local government officials as he worked alongside the community to develop a plan that would bring Stockton back from the brink. He continued to invest in properties, acquiring ones that other people felt had no worth. “I literally knocked on every door and cold called every owner within our footprint asking if they were interested in selling or partnering.” Zac explained. “Most people laughed or dismissed us when they heard our vision, but we kept at it, and eventually those same owners who doubted back then are the ones who want to partner on projects today.”

Zac attributes a large part of his success to hard work and staying focused. His long-term plan for Stockton is to give the city the downtown it deserves. “There is a pulse right now that is evident throughout the city. But what we need is to keep working toward bringing the soul of Stockton back.”

Downtown Stockton has the elements that all great cities strive for: arenas, museums, excellent schools and businesses. Those who have endured the last decade can now have hope that Stockton is making immense strides to improve the landscape. Today, the city on the San Joaquin Delta is thriving through the diligence of a few, but with the help of many. For those who are still wondering what the fate of Stockton holds, now is the time to be a part of the revolution.