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Developer Merritt dies at 79

Leroy M. Merritt’s firm controls a portfolio of 16 million square feet in more than 70 locations.

Leroy M. Merritt, a Baltimore real estate developer and owner of a popular chain of athletic clubs, died Monday from complications related to cancer. He was 79.

His death signifies the passing on of the older generation of a prominent, family-run real estate company that is well known for its stability as well as its innovation.

Born and raised in Dundalk and the son of restaurant owners, Merritt began as an independent homebuilder in the mid-1960s, after graduating from Western Maryland College, now known as McDaniel College. His first commercial property was a 16,000-square-foot warehouse in Southwest Baltimore built in partnership with developer Ed St. John, who inherited several warehouse properties from his father.

Merritt and St. John had a development company together until 1971, when St. John went on to found St. John Properties, one of the largest builders of suburban office and industrial space in the region, and Merritt founded Merritt Properties. The companies have what St. John called “identical” business models, building office, flex and industrial spaces with conservative financing and intended for long-term leasing returns, throughout the Baltimore region.

By 2009, the Merritt’s company controlled a portfolio of 16 million square feet in more than 70 locations.

“I’ve always said that Leroy taught me how to build, and I taught him what to build,” St. John said Tuesday from his vacation home in Aspen, Col. Merritt also owned a home in Aspen, and the two spent time together skiing long after they parted ways as business partners. St. John said he and Merritt did not have project managers in their early days, and would ride around construction sites together in a pickup truck, Merritt explaining to him how to pour concrete, lay foundations and build the structures that they had paid for.

St. John did not, however, share Merritt’s passion for racquetball, which Merritt played his whole life. His racquet is housed at the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1977, Merritt turned his favorite sport into a business venture by building the Towson Court Club, a gym with 12 racquetball courts that grew into the Merritt Athletic Clubs franchise, which has nine locations in the Baltimore region.

In the 1980s, according to St. John, the market for office space in Columbia, where Merritt owned several high-rise office towers, collapsed, and many real estate investors, including St. John, pulled out of the area. But not Merritt.

“I turned my back on that market,” St. John said. “I said, ‘I can’t deal with this sort of up-and-down market.’ He was smart enough to stay there in the long term, and profit on it when it came back. … That was probably one of the greatest coups he ever had.”

Merritt stepped down from day-to-day operations at his company in 2000, but continued to serve as chairman and “Chief Fun Officer,” according to a news release. In 1999, he founded the Leroy M. Merritt Charitable Trust, which supports needy women and children’s organizations, including House of Ruth and the Maryland Food Bank.

“Leroy’s integrity, generosity and good humor will be deeply missed by everyone who had the opportunity to work with him,” said Merritt Properties President Scott Dorsey.  “This is a very sad time for all of us.”

In recent years, Merritt Properties has focused on environmentally friendly development, including Schilling Green, an office building in Hunt Valley that has achieved LEED-Silver certification, a national green-building industry standard, and has been marketed as a progressive, low energy-use project.

The company also plans to open a 10th Merritt Athletic Clubs location in Hanover, known as Buckingham, which is planned to be the region’s first green health club.

Merritt is survived by his wife Gail Fitzpatrick Merritt, his two children, Robb Merritt, a vice president with the development firm, and Nancy Merritt Haigley, and five grandchildren. Merritt’s first wife, Jean, died in 1996.

Viewings will be held at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home on Thursday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and on Friday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The funeral service will be held at Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium on Saturday at 11 a.m., followed by a private interment. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the International Dyslexia Foundation.