By Chuck LeMenager
Raymond A. Watt, nationally renown builder and founder of San Diego Country Estates, died July 7 in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 90 years old.
Ray discovered Ramona in 1969 (population then, 5,000), when he was shown the San Vicente Valley, just southeast of the town’s center. He liked it so much he bought 3,250 acres there. He envisioned an open-space development that could be developed into a family-oriented recreation community.
In 1970 he set about planning and developing the residential infrastructure and recreational facilities. The objective was to create a low-density environmentally sensitive development that would appeal to a mixed market of primary and secondary homeowners.
The healthful climate and beautiful views would be fully exploited. Nearly half the land, 42 percent, was reserved for recreation and open space. Individual homes would be designed to fit the natural terrain instead of mass grading for building tracts. Home sites with all public services were sold to those who would design and build their own homes. Underground utilities, a modern water reclamation system, a fire station, three school sites and a commercial center were provided.
One of the first things he did was to build a Ted Robinson-designed golf course that complemented the natural beauty of the land and required less than 200,000 cubic yards of grading. Home sites adjacent to the golf course were designed to conform to course layout, not the other way around. Two first-class equestrian centers were built. Clubhouse and lodge facilities were also in place when lot sales began in 1972.
Not only was the physical development highly unique for those times, but Watt did something else that had rarely been done by developers. He deeded back all the common areas and recreational and resort facilities to the property owners when he formed the homeowners association. Today, that HOA owns and operates a complex that has an annual budget of $8 million and staff of over 100.
The valley that Watt bought in 1970 housed only five families. Today, SDCE has a population of nearly 10,000.
Ray was born on Feb. 26, 1919, in Keola, Colo., one of seven children. His father moved the family to Los Angeles and began working in construction in the early 1920s.
Ray started his business during the housing shortage after World War II. To help meet the demand in Southern California, he worked from dawn until dark and named his company Day and Night Construction. Throughout a career that spanned more than 60 years, Watt developed projects that have come to define the California lifestyle and received several national Builder of the Year awards.
Among his many achievements and honors was appointment to Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban development during the Nixon administration. He was inducted into the California Homebuilding Foundation Hall of Fame in 1987.
Ray majored in business at UCLA. As a successful businessman, he became a trustee of University of Southern California in 1967. Watt Hall of Architecture and Fine Arts is named in his honor.
His mastery of marketing shone most brilliantly in SDCE. Faced with selling over 3,000 home sites and condos in the early ‘70s, he staged many promotional events that helped put Ramona on the map.
One was the famous marketing coup that led to the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs at the Astrodome in September 1973.
The idea came from Tony Trabert, former world tennis champion, and one of Ray’s advisers. King ignored that first Riggs challenge, but the next ranked women’s player in the world, Margaret Court, accepted. The event was held on our clubhouse courts on Mothers Day 1973.
Televised by CBS, it aired in seven nations. Many tennis notables and Hollywood stars, including Jack Kramer and John Wayne, attended. For 10 days before the event, there was a media frenzy at the San Vicente Inn writing about Riggs’ bazaar training routine. That summer, after the dust had settled, Watt was selling lots at the rate of 125 a month.
Other outstanding promotional events included an Equestrian Grand Prix at SDCE’s International Equestrian Center in 1974. It offered $100,000 in prizes, unheard for the time. A few years later at his Fairbanks Ranch development, he was instrumental in attracting the 1984 Olympic Three Day Equestrian Event to be held on the Fairbanks Ranch Gold Course. That effort brought chairman of the event, Prince Phillip of England, there to inspect and ultimately select the Fairbanks site over Los Angeles’s Griffith Park, which had received the preliminary nod. Another marketing coup.
Ray brought world-champion cowboy Casey Tibbs to Ramona to help promote our equestrian-friendly living. In fact, Casey, who had traveled the world, enjoyed Ramona so much that he lived here the rest of his life.
Casey helped design the Western Center. One of his more interesting events was to put on a bull-riding clinic for aspiring rodeo cowboys who came from all over the U.S. to be with him. One of those campers was Steve Ford, son of then sitting President Gerald Ford. It was amusing to see Steve’s Secret Service detail in Levies guarding him from harm, while watching the bronc-riding machine slam him into the ground.
Under Ray’s generalship, his army of sales representatives manages to sell all of SDCE’s 3,450 properties by 1976. A monumental achievement.
Other outstanding San Diego County Watt developments include Fairbanks Ranch, a 618-home upscale community in Rancho Santa Fe. He also developed the Landing condominium complex on the former ferryboat landing site in Coronado.
He is survived by his third wife, Gwendolyn; his children, Sally Oxley, Janet Van Huisen and J. Scott Watt; seven grandchildren; and a number of great-grandchildren.
Son Scott Watt, who is chairman of the board of Watt Companies, carries on the Watt tradition from the company’s headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif.
Charles R. “Chuck” LeMenager, a resident of San Diego Country Estates, helped plan and develop the SDCE community as executive vice president for Watt. He is the author of “Off the Main Road,” a history of San Vicente and Barona, “Ramona & RoundAbout,” “Julian City and Cuyamaca Country” and “Flying After 50.”