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Jim Graves

Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

St. Anthony: Risk-taker Graves is back to business

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY
  • Star Tribune
  • December 9, 2012 - 7:41 PM

Jim Graves is a risk-taker.

When he launched a St. Cloud-based hotel development company in 1979 at age 26, he had more moxie than money.

"I had a couple grand in the bank and a Smith-Corona typewriter," he recalled.

His first project was an AmericInn in Rogers, Minn., and a couple of restaurants. That led to three decades of restaurant, apartment and hotel projects -- including the one in downtown Minneapolis with his name on it (the Graves 601 Hotel).

So when he launched a long-shot congressional campaign this year against incumbent Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, he was behaving in character.

Running as a job creator, fiscal conservative and social moderate in Minnesota's most conservative congressional district, Graves narrowed what started as a double-digit Bachmann lead. DFLer Graves lost to Bachmann by 1 percentage point, despite being outspent 10-to-1 thanks to Bachmann's coast-to-coast conservative patrons.

Would he do it again? "Never say never" is Graves's response to whether he'll run against Bachmann again in 2014. What he lacked in name identification and TV ads, the businessman nearly made up with a door-to-door campaign.

"I didn't like fundraising," Graves said of his seven-month campaign. "I did like meeting and talking with people, including those who opposed me."

His affable, open-hand style made Graves the millionaire developer and property manager who almost delivered a stunning upset.

At the Red Carpet nightclub in St. Cloud one night in September, Graves touted his business credentials with conservative radio host Dan Ochsner. The crowd, packed with Tea Party and Bachmann loyalists, went from cool to warm toward the 59-year-old Graves.

"I'm a business guy," Graves told them. "I love conservatives. I believe in free markets."

Graves said in a recent interview that he's back at work, planning developments in the Twin Cities, New York, St. Louis and Florida. His oldest son, Ben, runs day-to-day operations at Graves Hospitality.

Most of his wealth is tied up in real estate, said Graves, who started out as a schoolteacher in St. Cloud. In 1977, he took a job with a St. Cloud developer to make a better wage for his wife and three young kids. He struck out on his own nearly three years later.

Graves Hospitality started the AmericInn chain, focused on family style hotels at a reasonable cost, including a pool and free breakfast, in places like Waseca, Brainerd and Bemidji.

Things went well during the expansionary 1980s. But Graves stumbled during the 1990-91 real estate recession.

"There were a few times when I didn't know how I was going to make payroll. So I made it out of my bank account,'' Graves said. "I've had tough times, but I never failed or went bankrupt. I credit tenacity more than smarts for any success I've had."

During the Great Recession (2007-2009), amid high vacancy rates and plummeting estate values, Graves said he had to invest millions to buttress Graves-owned properties at the insistence of his bankers.

"I didn't have to give any properties back to the bank," Graves said. "We try to conduct business with integrity and treat others as we want to be treated."

Graves ran for office because he thinks a businessperson who is also a social-issues moderate could help the country with "solutions that work," including federal debt reduction. He wants to clean up the loophole-pocked federal tax code that tends to benefit the wealthiest and certain corporations.

He favors means testing for social programs and charging wealthy seniors more in Medicare premiums. But he would preserve the social safety net. He wants deficit reduction while also preserving lower taxes for the middle class.

Graves admires Warren Buffett, America's most successful investor and President Obama's tax-reform poster boy.

Graves said he is comfortable losing some tax loopholes and even paying more, as a member of the 2 percent targeted by Obama in "fiscal cliff" negotiations with Republicans in Congress.

"I've got a comfortable lifestyle, beyond what I thought possible," said Graves. "You give a person like me a $15,000 tax break, we don't need it. You give a couple thousand more to a family with $50,000 in income, and it will immediately help them. They'll spend it and you see the economy grow."

Graves said the fun thing about having money is reinvesting in business and increasing charitable giving with his wife of nearly 40 years.

"You never take it with you," he said. "Success isn't what you've accumulated. It's how you share your gifts."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 nstanthony@startribune.com

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