For Kickapoo Hoops Legends, A New Home Court Advantage.

Kelly Byrne (above) and Anthony Tolliver were teammates on Kickapoo’s title-winning basketball team in 2003. Now they’re together again — but this time, the goal is flipping homes, not winning championships.

story by Roman Stubbs / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published July 31, 2012

The boarded up, one-story home on South Catalina Street is one of the more decrepit properties in this peaceful neighborhood in southeast Springfield. The siding is weathered and stripped to bare wood. Yellow stains run down the window panes, and cobwebs stick in the corners of the front door. Inside, a musty smell circulates throughout the empty house, which features a dusty kitchen that is partially gutted with dated purple countertops. The front room is down to its original flooring, and the dining room has obscene graffiti inscribed on its walls.

This is exactly the place where NBA contract dollars are being funneled, to this rundown, unoccupied home on South Catalina Street. A few years ago, when Springfield native and current Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Anthony Tolliver started his home-flipping business, Say U Can, it was properties like this in Springfield that he wanted to find and turn into real homes.

The Springfield market is populated with many builders and a historically strong realtor community. But house flippers are more rare in the city.

A company like Say U Can will find a home for cheap, renovate it and then work with local realtors to “flip” the home to a new buyer for a higher price. Most of their properties were once considered too old or decrepit to go back on the market, but after renovation, the homes can often sell quickly.

There are usually no licenses necessary to secure this kind of work. House flippers connect with a local network of subcontractors, enlisting plumbers and landscapers and electricians. They lead a piecemeal team that concentrates on one project at a time.

But Tolliver’s schedule doesn’t allow for the freedom to work on homes on a day-to-day basis. He needs a business partner who shares his vision and taste. He needs a guy who has boots on the ground in Springfield, someone who can not only handle the enterprising rigors of the flipping trade, but also a guy who can walk into a home and rough up some drywall on command. Someone he trusts. That’s where 27-year-old Kelly Byrne comes in.

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A tale of two kitchens: One, at left, that needs renovation, and the other in a finished home.
(At top) Kelly Byrne in the bathroom of a home that’s about to undergo serious renovations. (Above) A tale of two kitchens: One, at left, that needs renovation, and the other in the finished home on South Catalina.

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Byrne is intelligent, skilled with his hands and, as a lifelong friend of Tolliver’s, a trustworthy co-founder of one of Springfield’s unusual real estate ventures. Say U Can targets single-family homes, taking run-down properties priced at anywhere from $30,000 and $60,000, making renovations and turning the homes into conceivable options for young buyers. They have flipped about 10 homes since the company’s 2009 inception, Byrne says, selling their refurbished homes for anywhere from $80,000 to $160,000. One of the major successes of the summer has taken place at a 2,700-sq. foot home in a cul-de-sac, also on South Catalina.

The four-bedroom, ranch-style home is perched on a hill – and Byrne held an open house in late June to show off the renovations. Contractors were still doing touch-up work in one of the rooms, but the house had come a long way in just a few weeks. Byrne gave the kitchen a face-lift, installing granite-colored countertops and heavy, durable wooden sliding doors in the dining room. He laid cherry-colored hardwood flooring in the front room and hung a flat-screen TV in the renovated master bathroom. The house is currently listed at $179,000 — slightly beyond the typical range for a Say U Can property.

But Byrne’s always got his eyes on whatever’s next. One home on South Catalina is finished, but another just down the block needs plenty of work. On the final Saturday in July, Byrne walks in, surveying the amount of work he has ahead. He can’t quite put into words why he wanted this home to flip, what he sees when it comes to risk versus reward. But Byrne sees something. On his Twitter account, after securing the property earlier in July, he called it a “gem.” All he knows is where he’s going with it: He wants a return on the investment, and he wants to remodel the home for a family.

“Hopefully this is where someone can raise a family,” says Byrne, walking through a hallway inside the home.

In a way, Byrne is like a talent scout. But instead of looking for the next great basketball player or singer, he’s on the lookout for a property that might one day become someone’s home.

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Byrne knows plenty about the scouting process. Once, he was the one being scouted, when he was a shooting guard with enormous potential on the basketball court. When Division I coaches visited Springfield’s Kickapoo High School during the 2002-03 season, they saw one of the best high school basketball teams in Missouri state history. Kickapoo lost just once that season, and went on to comfortably win the 5A state title. They finished the year ranked 12th in the country by USA Today.

The team was led by the legendary coach Roy Green, and all five starters would go on to play college ball. Three went on to play at the Division I level, including the powerful Tolliver, who played at Creighton. Byrne was considered the three-point sniper of the group, and he landed a scholarship at St. Cloud State University, a Division II school in Minnesota. It was a fast ascent for the childhood friends, who had played basketball together since the third grade. Tolliver was always vibrant, while Byrne was more quiet and reserved, Green remembers. But more than the power of Tolliver in the post, and more than five three-pointers that Byrne hit in the championship game of 2003, Green remembers two guys deeply in sync on the court.

“They were very unselfish with each other,” says Green, who retired from coaching in 2009. He says that chemistry makes them logical partners at Say U Can.

The two have basketball in common, but their backgrounds are very different. After college, Tolliver bounced around the NBA Development League and Europe for a few seasons before signing his first series of NBA contracts in 2008 – using stints with San Antonio, Portland and Golden State to advance his basketball career while laying the blueprint for Say U Can. Tolliver brings the checkbook to power the business.

Byrne has plenty of knowledge of real estate in Springfield — his mother worked in the field — and he used his time at St. Cloud State to learn about real estate and marketing matters. After graduation, he landed a job as a project developer for a local real estate company in Springfield, and he formed the background and confidence of a man who could help run an independent company. In addition to Say U Can, Byrne is a partner in No Limit Marketing, a Las Vegas firm that has taught Byrne more about the art of sales.

“Sales is very transferable to everything in life,” says Byrne. “If nothing else, I’ve learned a lot from that business that is transferable to my other businesses.”

He’s learned construction techniques along the way – being a tall, muscular ex-athlete doesn’t hurt – and he has continued to market the business when Tolliver is away from Springfield.

“There’s a lot of trust there,” says Byrne of his relationship with Tolliver. “Our roles are well defined. He trusts me and I trust him, and being apart isn’t necessarily a bad thing either because that trust has to be there.”

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Kelly Byrne outside one of his just-finished properties on South Catalina, listed for $179,000.
Kelly Byrne outside one of his just-finished properties on South Catalina, listed for $179,000. It’s a bit above the company’s normal price range.

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Compared with other cities across the country, Springfield’s real-estate market didn’t exactly crumble in 2008 – but it lost considerable momentum gained in the 10 years prior, with the growth of housing working in concert with the population boom occurring in the region. In terms of new properties sprouting up, southwest Missouri had 17,322 housing starts between 2004 and 2007 – and only 4,631 in the four years after, according to the Home Builder’s Association of Greater Springfield.

Much of that dip was related to the recession, although Springfield didn’t experience the 20 to 30 percent foreclosure swings that occurred in many towns across the country. By the time Springfield came out of the recession, it was still a very economical place to live, statistically speaking. The 2010 Census indicated that the median household in Springfield earned just $33,000 – about $13,000 less than the rest of the state – and the homeownership in town between 2006 and 2010 was about 51 percent. Missouri’s overall rate was 70 percent during that four-year span.

Traditionally, Springfield hasn’t had increases in housing prices, according to Shirley Cofer, president of the Greater Springfield Board of Realtors. The average home in Springfield sells for about $137,000 as of July – which is a substantial increase from last year’s prices, which hovered between $124,000 and $127,000, according to Cofer. [1] A home sits on the market, on average, for about 80 days, which Cofer says is also an improvement from 2011 housing data.

“That’s showing me that things are moving,” says Cofer, who is also a realtor with Murney Associates, one of the more prominent real estate firms in the city. “We hope that that sale price average still goes up a little bit, but I think that’s a viable amount that people can buy right now.”

Byrne asserts that if he and Tolliver were trying to flip $500,000 mansions in Springfield, Say U Can would be in considerable trouble. But they’re not. Tolliver signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal with Minnesota in 2010, and he is continuing to pump his money into investments in Springfield. Byrne says the company has about 10 properties in development at the moment – all centering on single-family homes that can be purchased through a realtor with financing.

The profits fit the modest profile of the Springfield housing market, and Byrne has built a solid system of more than a half-dozen subcontractors to help him on projects. Jackie Snead of Carol Jones Realtors handles the day-to-day marketing of finished renovations for the company.

“There’s a lot of markets within real estate… and within single-family residential, there are a lot of niches,” says Byrne. “There’s definitely a need there, and that’s what we are. There’s all kind of other opportunities in the Springfield market, it’s just not the ones that we chose to focus on.”

Say U Can hasn’t lost money on any home yet, Byrne says. But risk isn’t something Byrne thinks about when he’s scouting. Just potential — to turn a profit, and to turn an aging property into a home that a Springfield family might one day love.