After acquiring the luxurious Kiawah Island, South Carolina resort community in 1988, Kiawah Partners chairman/CEO Buddy Darby has seen his fair share of economic downturns. If first quarter real estate sales are any indication, however, it appears that Darby’s 10,000-acre barrier island has bounced back from perhaps the biggest recession of them all. Indeed, through the end of March, Kiawah Island Real Estate recorded $61.5 million dollars in residential sales, a 59 percent increase over the first quarter of 2009. The strong first-quarter earnings were fueled by $39.5 million in vacation home sales in March, which exceeded the total sales volume for the entire first quarter of 2009 and represented the biggest month in properties sold (25) since April 2008. The sales keep piling up as another $37 million in properties were under contract in April with the average price being $1.5 million for single-family homes, villas, and homesites. Darby, whose Kiawah Partners is the master developer of this exclusive island 21 miles from Charleston, credits a literal thaw in the north for Kiawah’s sales bounce. Other factors include a growing confidence in the equity markets, knowledge that Kiawah is backed by a “healthy developer that’s not over-leveraged,” a resort developer who “doesn’t have any debt on his properties,” and a community association holding $14 million in reserves. “People are starting to buy again. Once the snow thawed in the Northeast, they started coming down and we’ve just had a remarkable March and April,” adds Darby. “Anytime there’s a harsh winter we tend to hear people say, ‘I’m done.’” What’s especially refreshing for Darby is the heightened activity in Kiawah’s upperend homes above $2.5 million (11 were sold through May compared with 14 in all of 2009). “Who knows where this will all end up at the end of the year, but right now we’re hanging 10,” Darby says. “I suspect that this is going to continue.”

—Scott Kauffman