Moved by nostalgia and a keen business sense, Dwight Manley reminisced about his old haunts as he strolled downtown Brea recently. And so he bought a big chunk of it.
His newly acquired properties are yards from where his childhood hangouts once stood: the corner Der Wienerschnitzel and the rare-coin store that set him on a path to unimagined fortune.
But it wasn’t only sentiment that brought Manley, a sports agent who first made millions trading historic coins, back to his hometown.
“This has so much potential,” Manley said, standing on Birch Street, now a modern promenade of restaurants, coffeehouses and movie theaters that anchor the remade downtown.
Manley, 37, and his wife, Sahar, paid $13 million last month for three buildings that contain 17 shops and 30 apartment units, the last structures to be sold by the CIM Group, downtown Brea’s developer.
The northern Orange County city is one of several in Southern California, including Pasadena and Long Beach, that have sought to revitalize their blighted, worn-out downtowns with a mix of homes, trendy shops and entertainment venues.
Downtown Brea, whose remake was completed five years ago, has seen a measure of success, city officials and local merchants say, but Manley says more can be done.
He knows a thing or two about potential.
Manley became a millionaire by age 23, having bought undervalued rare coins and sold them at a profit. He is also credited by many with turning Dennis Rodman from a second-tier NBA player into a publicity cash cow in the late 1990s.
Manley’s dealings with Rodman led to a thriving sports agency and a client roster that now includes Lakers Karl Malone -- a neighbor of Manley’s in swank Newport Coast -- and Bryon Russell.
Manley says he can bring the same business savvy to Brea’s signature town center. He plans to be a hands-on landlord. He has suggested to some of his tenants that they put more upscale products in their display windows.
He said he has offered to buy out the leases of those that don’t fit his “family fun” theme, including a gift shop that sells samurai sword replicas.
And for next Christmas, Manley is proposing a winter wonderland with Santa Claus and live reindeer to promote the shopping district.
“I am being proactive,” he said. “I’m not just talking and hoping it will get better. In the long term, this has so much room for improvement.”
Manley’s tenants are cautious about their new landlord. The owner of the gift shop, Classic Orient, offered no comment, and others said they would wait and see. But city officials and other landlords have welcomed the energetic businessman.
“He is exactly the type of landlord we would like to have here,” said David Long, president of the Brea Downtown Owners Assn. The district “is still a bit of a work in progress,” said Long, whose company owns two buildings. “He has a lot of great ideas to take it to the next level.”
In a roundabout way, Manley has the experience. Nearly a decade ago, he helped supercharge the career of a basketball player with respectable talent but little cash flow.
Manley and Rodman met at a Las Vegas casino in 1993 through a mutual acquaintance. The two became good friends, and Manley began handling Rodman’s business affairs a few years later.
“I helped him with some appearances and autograph signing and infomercials,” Manley said. And a book deal that would jolt the publishing world.
Rodman’s autobiography, “Bad as I Wanna Be,” made its debut at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list in 1996 and put the “Worm” on the publicity map.
It also made Manley an even richer man.
But it all began in Brea, at a coin shop just blocks from the properties he now owns. There, Manley recalled, he bought a 1911 Lincoln penny for 15 cents to complete a set that included 1909 and 1910 pennies he had found in a coffee can where his father kept spare change. Manley was 6.
He became a regular at the shop, making the three-mile round trip twice a week on his bicycle. He became a numismatic expert.
Childhood friend Larry Morrill said he remembers young Manley regularly exchanging $50 in bills for half-dollar coins at the local banks in the early 1980s. He was looking for early silver mints of the coins, Morrill said. With the precious metal’s price rising at the time, Manley knew the coins were worth more than their denomination.
“One day, he was on his porch,” Morrill said, “and I heard this shout. He had found it. It was the funniest thing.... We were playing basketball and that is what Dwight was doing: making money.”
And he made a lot of it. After graduating from Brea Olinda High School, Manley headed east to work for a coin broker and learn the trade that would make him rich.
By the time Manley met Rodman, he was already a multimillionaire.
But downtown Brea didn’t prosper as much. The quaint Main Street-style district couldn’t compete with the modern shopping malls springing up all around it. In 1985, the city embarked on its redevelopment project.
The Der Wienerschnitzel is an Edwards movie theater now. A building with a furniture store and a clothing store now stand where the coin store once stood on Brea Boulevard. Earlier this month, Manley opened escrow on that building too. He partnered with Malone and offered close to $2.5 million.
Having grown up in Brea, Manley never imagined he would one day own a piece of the city.
“How could you?” Manley said. “My dream was to maybe own a house one day.”