ROX Interview: Jim and Linda Lee

Helping Build A Community: More than Bricks and Mortar

Interview by Ray Newton

For more than 40 years, Jim and Linda Lee have made their presence in the greater Prescott area known through visionary leadership and generous philanthropic support of dozens of community organizations. Beyond that, their efforts in creating and developing upscale residential and commercial developments have added to economic growth and prosperity of the area. Those developments are of magnitude.

Among projects for which the Lees have provided leadership are Prescott’s first mall, Ponderosa Plaza, located on Gail Gardner Way and Iron Springs Road. Developments don’t stop there. Others include The Ranch at Prescott, a residential community; Gateway Mall and the Walmart Super Center; and Touchmark at the Ranch, a 44-acre comprehensive senior living community. All these are located on Hwy 69 on the eastern edge of Prescott.

The latest development project is the 100-unit complex of six residential apartments and a clubhouse. Called Winfield at the Ranch, it is located on Lee Circle at the east side of Prescott.

Further, the Lees have been generous supporters of the fine and performing arts throughout the region. Most recently, they were acknowledged by the Yavapai Symphony Association for sponsoring the May 19 piano recital featuring Kenneth Bromberg, winner of the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

That’s just one example of their generosity. For decades, they have supported the Prescott POPS Symphony Orchestra School Grants to help fund instrumental music in local schools. They also support the annual Music Memory program for the benefit of third through fifth graders throughout the county. More recently, they pledged significant support to the Prescott Chorale, which performs master works by the great composers. They also provide scholarships for qualified students in the music and performing arts programs at Yavapai College.

One of their most visible contributions resulted in the Jim and Linda Lee Planetarium located at the STEM Education Center on the campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) in Prescott. The technologically sophisticated 47-foot-diameter dome — the only planetarium north of Phoenix — has become a popular destination for domestic and international visitors. (See related story on p. 66)

The Lee’s philanthropy does not stop at the Yavapai County boundaries. They are major donors to the Arizona Opera. Established in 1971, the Arizona Opera operates out of both Phoenix and Tucson. The Lees have underwritten several major opera performances over the years.

They also are major supporters of the University of Arizona College Of Medicine. Several years ago, they established the Jim and Linda Lee Memorial Endowment for Cardiovascular Disease. The purpose — to benefit the Sarver Heart Center founded at the U of A Medical Center in 1986, and now recognized as one of the world’s leading cardiovascular research institutions.

Community appreciation for the many contributions the Lees have made is long-standing and common. For instance, 16 years ago, a full-page ad in the Daily Courier (Prescott’s hometown newspaper) was signed by three different former Prescott mayors: Rowle Simmons (2001-2007), Paul Daly (1995-1999) and Daiton Rutkowski (1991-1995). Their statement concluded that the Lees over the years had “…helped make Prescott one of the best places in America to live, work and raise a family.”

ERAU Chancellor Frank Ayers frequently praises the Lees for their generosity in supporting not just the planetarium but also student scholarships, athletic programs and other campus activities.

Arlon Inman, president, Yavapai Symphony Association, told an audience in April that the Lees have been advocates for the YSA ever since they arrived in Prescott.

In summary, Jim and Linda Lee epitomize enthusiastic dedication to making the motto of “Everyone’s hometown” a reality, not a platitude.

PRESCOTT LIVING: Jim and Linda, you have been making your influence felt in the greater Prescott area for more than 40 years. Why did you come to Prescott? Why Prescott of all the places you could go in the 70s?

JIM LEE: I loved Prescott. I had been coming here from Phoenix for years, then one evening, I had a call from a friend, a developer, who said, “I am going to do a shopping center in Prescott. Do you want to buy in? I said, “Yes.” That was the beginning of Ponderosa Plaza. It ultimately turned out to be a very good business. We decided then we wanted to be in Prescott full-time. That resulted in the purchase of land that became The Ranch at Prescott.

LINDA LEE: I was teaching in Phoenix. Jim said, “Do you want to move to Prescott?” I said, “What am I going to do in Prescott?” He said, “Why don’t you get your real estate license and you can fill in part-time.” Little did I know that meant 12-hour days, seven days a week. But it was fun!

JIM LEE: With the exception of one or two small areas, we actually opened up the residential real estate development in the area. After about a year we sat down and I said, “We are not reaching our potential.” Linda said, “Let me do the sales.” She totally designed our sales program strategy. Without success in the residential, I could never have been successful in the commercial.

LINDA LEE: I assembled a top-notch sales team and took charge of all the sales and marketing. It became a very successful program.

JIM LEE: When we started The Ranch at Prescott, there were only 1500 people in Prescott Valley and 15,000 in Prescott. The locals said, “You are crazy, absolutely crazy.” But we knew we had the weather and that Prescott was going to grow. We were halfway between Prescott and Prescott Valley. After The Ranch became successful, we progressed from crazy to lucky!

PRESCOTT LIVING: The two of you met in Europe years before?

LINDA LEE: Yes, Russia is where we met. Jim had been working with People to People in Russia, and I was teaching English and Russian history. As we shared a common interest in the arts, we returned to Russia many times for the ballet and opera.

PRESCOTT LIVING: Let’s get back to why you came to Prescott.

JIM LEE: That goes back to the time of evaporative coolers and not much air conditioning in the valley. Here, there was a 15-20 degree drop in temperature. With a little bit of rain, this place was heaven. In fact, when we told friends in the valley that we were moving to Prescott, their response was, “Why?” We said, “It’s very close to heaven!”

PRESCOTT LIVING: You’ve been living in Arizona for many years, right?

LINDA LEE: We’ve been here many years, moving here in 1977 when Jim helped develop Ponderosa Plaza Mall. At the time, it was one of the largest malls around, around 300,000 square feet, large for a small region like Prescott.

PRESCOTT LIVING: What is it about Prescott that is appealing? What do you like about it? The weather? The people?

LINDA LEE: We like both the weather and the people. We like the ambiance, especially in the arts and music. We see Prescott rapidly expanding into one of the leading cultural centers in northern Arizona and eventually moving beyond Arizona’s borders. The arts are our hobby. Music and the arts. Initially, we decided to support the Yavapai Symphony Association; it was a great decision.

JIM LEE: You asked about Prescott. When we did the Ponderosa Plaza Mall, it took over two years to prove to people that Prescott was the right spot for a mall. We did a complete analysis of savings and discovered that Prescott residents had the second highest savings rate in the whole state. Only Scottsdale was higher.

The people here are great. We know many of the families after 40 years and each time we visit, we are simply amazed at the success of their children. They have children living in many parts of the world, very successful in many different ventures. Linda and I are amazed at the quality of education in this community; graduates of the school system are proof of this quality.

PRESCOTT LIVING: Tell readers about The Ranch at Prescott, Gateway Mall, Touchmark at The Ranch, Ponderosa Plaza Mall and the Walmart Supercenter. What are some of the challenges you faced?

LINDA LEE: As with most new commercial ventures, opposition developed against Gateway Mall. The city was very supportive, however. Paul Daly was mayor at the time, and Mark Stevens was the city manager. They led a very cohesive group of progressive officials.

PRESCOTT LIVING: Did you have any disappointments?

JIM LEE: Of course. The Gateway Mall had pre-leased over 90% of its total space. Then 9/11 occurred. Leases dropped to the mid 70%. It never did get above 80% after that; it takes years to recover.

PRESCOTT LIVING: Tell us what prompted you to become an advocate for a senior living resort like Touchmark at the Ranch.

JIM LEE: We had been looking for the appropriate senior living community for a number of years. We wanted a group who had heart for our friends and associates; someone who realized what the residents wanted. We found Werner G. Nistler, founder of Touchmark. He now has 13 communities in eight states and Canada. We like their concept of love and concern. The Ranch now has a retirement center of single-family residences, cottages, apartments, assisted and memory care that accommodate up to 350 adults.

PRESCOTT LIVING: Let’s talk about your other contributions in Prescott. You are recognized for being exceptionally generous philanthropists. You give to many organizations . . . the arts, music, education and more. What motivates you?

LINDA LEE: First, we enjoy giving to worthwhile causes, especially those that involve students. We would like to see Prescott develop into a well-recognized music and arts community. We saw what the opera did for Santa Fe and we believe Prescott is poised for similar development. We support the Prescott Chorale, seeing what it does with scholarships for students studying voice. Through contributions to Yavapai College Performing Arts, many students benefit from scholarships. We support Prescott Friends of Arizona Opera, the Prescott POPS and its music memory program for children through Yavapai County.

PRESCOTT LIVING: What is your favorite opera performance.

LINDA LEE: Without a doubt, it’s “Nabucco”, performed at La Scala in Milan under Ricardo Muti. Jim likes Puccini a bit more than Verdi, but Verdi is always my favorite.

PRESCOTT LIVING: Have you been frequent visitors to Vienna? Have you seen performances there?

LINDA LEE: Yes, we have been to Vienna many times and seen many operas and ballet in its Vienna State Opera House.

PRESCOTT LIVING: One of your passions was unrelated to music or art; that’s the planetarium at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU). What was it about the planetarium that made you decide, “Let’s support that. Let’s make that happen.” Why a planetarium?

LINDA LEE: We think ERAU is doing something for the entire community . . . not just one audience or smaller segment of the population. Many performing arts venues are available, but not planetariums. Also, more residents will realize what an asset Embry-Riddle is to the community and region. It is a world-class university, responsible for bringing high technology, new jobs and industries to Prescott.

JIM LEE: The Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium in Tucson also sparked our interest. It is very successful with incredible community participation in its many programs. Linda and I have noticed that planetarium enthusiasts often have young children. They are educated and not shy about attending college. But Yavapai County has many rural children that have limited access to facilities such as the planetarium. They may be lacking electronics or external stimulation. We believe the planetarium will help educate and extend the learning experience to everyone.

PRESCOTT LIVING: You both have been here long enough to have observations, good and bad, about what you see in Prescott. Would you share some of these?

JIM LEE: The city has evolved into one of the best places to live in the United States. We have great a climate and great people. The majority of people who come here get involved, not only in philanthropy, but with their time, giving back to the community. We have outstanding public schools, several colleges and now an international school, Embry-Riddle. Prescott has an exceptional cultural presence for a community its size. We know the present city administration will include planning to maintain these qualities. We are blessed to have spent this part of our lives in Prescott, a place we love.