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Detroit’s Unsung Development Hero

LaMont’s title sleuthing a big boost to city’s redevelopment

May 23, 2006 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Dave Krieger

Cathy LaMont built her successful company by solving property title problems for redevelopment projects in Detroit.

DETROIT—Developers call her an unsung hero. A pioneer. A champion of urban development.

Tall words, but Cathy LaMont has carved a niche in this city’s business landscape and found success in doing work that many call critical to its renewal.

Ms. LaMont is president of LaMont Title Corporation, which people in development circles here say is the “go-to” place for the crucial task of securing title insurance for development projects within the city limits. Considering that she did the title work for both Comerica Park and Ford Field, as well as the casinos, the RiverWalk, the new riverfront projects and much of everything else in between, she’s got the cred to back up the kudos.

The fact that her company, located downtown in the Guardian Building, has grown so rapidly in the four years since its founding demonstrates just how remarkably widespread redevelopment efforts are in Detroit these days. From major league sports arenas, to a long list of neighborhood redevelopment efforts, to the growing clamor for regional public transit, to the major private and public efforts to redevelop the city’s long-ignored waterfront, Detroit is pushing forward against the state’s immense economic headwinds.

In fact, Ms. LaMont’s tenacity, vision, and success make her a prime example of what doing business in the city can be like these days. Her work is by no means easy, and in many ways it’s more challenging than what it would be if she focused on projects out in double-digit Mile Road territory, beyond the city limits. But she’s built a name, made a mark, and found a market hungry for the seemingly arcane but quite indispensable work that she does.

“She embraced that challenge rather than running away from it. And that’s how she’s been able to carve out a niche,” said Mike Dempsey, a project manager for the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., a public-private agency dedicated to fostering development here. “She saw an opportunity that many people were fleeing from, and she was able to capitalize on it and to do so tremendously.”

So, What’s in a Title?
Title insurance ain’t the sexiest topic, at least on the surface, but to those who care about revitalizing Detroit, it should be hot stuff. Securing titles is an extremely vital part of redeveloping the city’s neighborhoods, many of which are sprinkled with long-empty or abandoned homes and lots.

If you’ve ever bought a house, you know one of the “closing costs” is always title insurance—an item that you tick off without a flinch.

To get a title insured, however, an insurer has to be certain records show the property will be transferred to you free and clear and that no one else can lay claim to it. And, if someone does make a claim, the insurer must be prepared to back you up. Without title insurance, the bank doesn’t give you a mortgage.

Now, imagine trying to redevelop a parcel that had, say, 100 different owners. Some of the land is city-owned, reclaimed from property owners who didn’t pay taxes. Some deeds go back a couple hundred years. Property lines shift, structures encroach on one another’s land. The land’s value right now is low, because it’s been abandoned for years, so you expect to pay a low title insurance premium. But what company would take on the risk and heaps of work to insure a title in such messy, sloppy circumstances? If something goes wrong, you’d potentially open the door for costly court time if the deed gets challenged.

That is why Ms. LaMont and her crew of 30 take on complicated title searches, some going back a couple hundred years, for urban development projects. It’s their specialty.

“It’s like having a guide through the jungle,” says Midtown developer Colin Hubbell. His development company, Hubbell Group, works with LaMont Title on all of its projects, including 55 W. Canfield and the Art Center Town Homes.

“Cathy LaMont is one of the unsung heroes in Detroit’'s redevelopment," Mr. Hubbell said. "Very few people understand the legal complexity of turning challenged, encumbered, blighted, and often-foreclosed urban property back into productive use like Cathy does. Her problem-solving approach to title issues has played a critical role in almost every significant redevelopment project under way in the city.”

Historically Speaking
Ms. LaMont, a real estate attorney, worked for years on titles for a big firm, First American Title Insurance Company. The idea to hang up her own title company shingle came to her when Detroit’s previous city administration, led by then Mayor Dennis Archer, successfully established empowerment zones throughout Detroit. There sat acres of private land, much of it vacant, and the 40,000-odd lots the city owned—all waiting for redevelopment.

People could make big plans for those properties, she said, but she realized none of it was going to move unless a company was willing to do the title work. At that point hardly any title company wanted to touch those properties.

“It became clear to me that if we’re not prepared to understand (the complexities) of tax-reverted properties, the city’s never going to get anything done,” she said.

So Ms. LaMont dug in and became an expert on handling titles for foreclosed properties.

“And so, on the basis of that, I got buckets of properties, buckets of deals,” she said. “I got the stadiums. I got casinos. I got all the big deals in town, based on the company’s willingness to understand and to insure tax-reverted parcels.”

Ms. LaMont said she so firmly believes in the importance of doing title work in Detroit that she even tries to share her expertise on tax-reverted properties with other title companies—“I believe in competition,” she says—but she doesn’t get a lot of bites.

“I’ve got a corner on the market, but it’s because nobody wants that corner,” she said, laughing again.

Challenges and Rewards
Development work in the city is not an easy game—no one would say it is—but there are rewards.

As Ms. LaMont explains her work, it conjures up visions of Sherlock Holmes-ian detectives sniffing out clues to who owns what, and clerks buried in reams of old documents — messy, tedious stuff.
“It’s not easy. Easy money is not to be had in the city. But there’s good money and solid money to be had in the city,” Ms. LaMont says. “And there’s a lot of opportunities. There’s a lot of viable projects that are available in the city that might not be available in the ‘burbs.”

There are lots of things that make title searches very challenges in any urban development project, she says. They include the age of a property, shifting property lines, shifting uses of the land, all of which may affect ownership rights. But sorting them out is … fun?

“In Detroit, you have old titles, there’s history,” Ms. LaMont explained. “You know, when we were doing the stadiums, you could see the old names—the Beaubiens, the Randolphs. It’s just so cool. The riverfront, the law is interesting about riparian [waterfront] rights. The rail tunnel under the river, it’s fascinating, because it’s two kinds of law — Canadian law and American law — and you’ve got the best minds in the business working on that deal.

“It’s intellectually challenging, historically fascinating and intriguing,” she added. “And we make a difference. Before the shovels go into the ground, we see what’s going on. And there’s a ton going on.”

That sense of being part of something greater, she said, has also been one of the rewards helping redevelop Detroit. And it's been profitable: “The second year we moved in here, we had so many orders in the first quarter, which is the deadest time of the season in this business. We had like 1,800 orders for residential properties around Detroit. So I knew all the stuff that was going up—and now it’s up. It’s really, really exciting to be part of that.”

Ms. LaMont’s company has grown from five employees in 2002, when she opened shop, to 30 today. She’s even expanding into a Troy-based office. (“We can do the easy stuff, too,” she joked.) But Detroit has been the key to her success, and she, very humbly, gives the credit to the city and the people developing it.

“I found a niche. That’s all,” she said. “It’s not me. I found a niche. And this city is growing. It is changing dramatically. Night and day.”

Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey is a freelance writer and managing editor of www.modeldmedia.com, where this article was first published. The Web site is devoted to news about neighborhood redevelopment projects in Detroit. Reach Ms. Ramsey at clare@issuemediagroup.com.

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