BUFFALO HILL CENTER owners mark and Irene Smith, both 87, stand in front of the heart of the center that includes Mar-Val Market. Democrat photo by Shelly Thorene

Secrets of Success 2013

Buffalo Hill Center anchored by Mar-Val

By From page SOS13 | December 30, 2013

Success in business comes in many ways and for Mark and Irene Smith of Georgetown it came over a number of years. The Smiths, married on April 1, 1951, and moved to the Georgetown Divide shortly thereafter, beginning their lives together and their family of five.

“My father was a copper mining engineer in a small town in Nevada,” said Mark, referring to his love and interest in mining equipment, and in a small-town lifestyle. “We bought this land in 1960 and began the first building in 1978, before going on my expedition to the Darien Gap. The center was subdivided into different pieces so I could build and finance each individually.”

The land to which Smith refers is the Buffalo Hill Center in Georgetown. The 12 acres currently houses 21 businesses and employs more than 100 people in the small hamlet just north of Placerville and south of Auburn.

“The town needed a decent market,” said Mark. “We predesigned and designed for the market, and it took 20 years to find someone who wanted to put one in here. We are one of Mar-Val’s five stores.”

“The reason the center is so successful is our tenants,” said Irene. “We want everybody to work together well,” thus being very selective on the types of businesses to which they lease and discerning on the people to whom they lease, as well.

The land where the businesses sit even lends itself well to the success of the center. “We used the land and its contours, and designed the buildings to go with it,” said Mark, adding that’s why it has the three levels it does. The buildings are all of the old-western style, some with wooden sidewalks and tin roofs. Although he also said, “We didn’t want to asphalt the development” the asphalt eventually came and has lent itself well to the increased traffic in the area.

“I bought the property at one time and had planned on developing it, but due to financial problems, had to give it up. I later re-purchased the land and started again.”

Another great characteristic of the center is the huge number of mining and logging antiques scattered throughout in an outdoor display. “We have the largest collection in the state of old mining and lumber artifacts,” he said. In fact, their friend and former actor Perry King was attracted to the area by the mining equipment, according to Irene, who is known for her former dress shop “Irene’s” and her real estate sales.

“On weekends, it’s amazing the number of people milling about looking at the equipment,” said Mark, who served the community as the resident deputy sheriff in his early residence and worked as a logger and real estate developer. “The equipment comes from all over and I’m always looking for more.”

One very special building in the center is the old Catholic Church, which used to sit on Main Street. The Smiths had the building moved when they heard that it was going to be demolished. It was dedicated as a historical building by Ronald Reagan in 1978. Smith acknowledged PG&E and the phone company, next to which the church was located, for their donated time and help in the move.

Prior to developing the Buffalo Hill Center, Mark, who still holds his real estate broker’s license, said he was involved in the development of Rolling Hills, a small subdivision in the middle of Georgetown, in 1958, prior to the time that El Dorado County had a significant building department. He also helped build Forest Meadows subdivision on Hotchkiss Hill, and worked with two other partners before selling his share of 900 acres in Garden Valley where Garden Valley Ranch Estates now sits.

“It was the only way we could keep teachers up here,” said Irene, speaking of the Rolling Hills subdivision. “We built one building at a time,” in the subdivision as well.

“When we moved to town, there was not one foundation,” said Mark, who in the early days also served five years each as the Auburn Lake Trails project manager and county airport manager, helped redevelop the Tahoe Airport and designed terminal buildings there. He is best known for his involvement with the Jeepers Jamboree Committee in its first four decades, and the newer Jeepers Jamboree USA. “It was difficult to borrow money.”

In that realm, Mark said he borrowed $50,000 from Ralph Cole, the local judge at the time and known as the Georgetown Savings and Loan, and put a shell of a building up for the grocery store. “For two years I went around to different markets,” he said. “At one point there were two different people (or groups) that were going to build a market — one in Greenwood and one where the current Lutheran Church is now, “next door to the Georgetown Divide Public Utility District’s main office. “They were going to be smaller markets of approximately 6,000 to 7,000 square feet.”

The Mar-Val “shell” that Smith first built was 16,000 square feet, but today it has expanded to the original planned size of 20,000 square feet.

“Thinking and scheming over what I could do to stop or delay (the other smaller markets), I played a poker hand and bluffed,” said Mark. “When I put up the shell all of the competition dropped out. The building sat vacant for two years while I tried to find a tenant.”

Visiting a variety of “supermarkets” to get a feel for the business, Irene said many of the stores were “filthy. I told Mark we didn’t want to bring that into Georgetown,” she said. “Safeway just laughed at us,” about building a market in Georgetown.

“I have been very fortunate,” said Mark, who has been involved in the introduction of every new model of Jeep since 1972. “My bluffing panned out. The town needed services,” which the Smiths said was their impetus for helping to break up sections of land in the community in the traditional 4-by-4 method. At the time, 160 acres could be divided into four parcels, thus the name. It’s ironic considering Smith’s passion for off-roading, for which he also developed a driving school.

“It’s almost impossible to do stuff today,” he added. “The impact fees alone are prohibitive.” (Mark also wrote a history of his life and times in the book, “Driven by a Dream,” published in 2004 and from which some of the foregoing is taken.)

A huge 1,200-pound, steel buffalo was commissioned for the center in 1994, and acts as the entry icon for the center north of Main Street on Highway 193.

“The buffalo was specially made,” said Irene.

Along with the buffalo is a sign post that lists all of the businesses in the center, including the local newspaper, the Georgetown Gazette, which occupies a suite on one of the third levels.

The Smiths raised their three children — Patti, Greg and Jill — on the Divide, a community in which they hold great pride.

Rebecca Murphy

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