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Mike Harrah: Dreaming Big in Santa Ana

Mike Harrah, often referred to as “Big Mike” for his tall stature, isn’t afraid to dream big, either.

His company, Caribou Industries Inc.—which is among the largest real estate owners and property managers in Santa Ana—has a host of high-profile local projects lined up, with a goal of modernizing and revitalizing Orange County’s third-largest city by population.

Standing tall among those projects: the long-awaited One Broadway Plaza, which promises to be OC’s tallest building by a wide margin when complete, at 37 stories.

The project, in the works for nearly two decades, has seen more than its share of hurdles, with recessions, a pandemic, market cycles and changing work-life trends keeping its plans in flux and construction from going vertical.

Harrah remains undeterred and insists the project will come to fruition.

“It took me 20 years to get all the approvals for what will be Orange County’s tallest building,” Harrah told the Business Journal.

The current iteration of the project proposes a mixed-use, multifamily project. It would hold 468 apartment homes, 100,000 square feet of high-rise office space and 50,000 square feet of amenities including restaurants, a theater and a heliport landing site.

“Now’s the perfect time for it, since demand for apartments is huge,” Harrah said.

Harrah’s kept plenty busy even without the tower’s completion, as evidenced by his latest accolade.

Harrah was honored for his work with Caribou last month at the Business Journal’s 23rd annual Excellence in Entrepreneurship Awards at the Irvine Marriott.

Caribou, which is based in Santa Ana, has acquired, developed or renovated over 7 million square feet of office, retail and residential properties across California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii since its inception in 1977.

Buy It or Build It

Harrah credits his father for instilling an entrepreneurial mindset at a young age.

His father, a machinist and handyman, strongly believed that “if you can’t build it or buy it, you shouldn’t own it.”

While the other parents of Harrah’s childhood neighborhood in Whittier gifted their kids 10-speed bikes on their birthdays or during Christmas, Harrah had to raise the money to buy one himself.

He started a lawn mowing business at 8 years old, charging neighbors 25 cents for the front lawn and 50 cents for the backyard.

Eventually, he earned enough to buy a bike.

“That upbringing seemed unfair to me at the time, but it’s why I got this award,” Harrah said.

Santa Ana Love

Harrah’s love for Santa Ana took root when he was a young boy.

“It was the first place where I saw high-rise buildings, which really impressed me as a child in the ’60s,” he told the Business Journal.

Caribou’s found the city, in particular its downtown—an area often overlooked by other local developers—a big source of business, and profits.

Two of the company’s biggest deals have come in recent years, when the company traded a pair of Santa Ana properties for a combined $117.2 million.

One of the properties was the former printing press facility for OC Register, located along Grand Avenue. Amazon paid $63.2 million for the site; a 112,500-square-foot last-mile distribution center is planned for the lot and expected to be complete by 2025.

The other deal was the $54 million trade of 888 on Main Apartments, a 10-story office building that was converted into a 148-unit apartment complex. Calabasas-based Alliant Strategic Development was the buyer.

On the Docket

According to Harrah, the next big project in Santa Ana for Caribou will be the 3rd and Broadway Promenade.

The company has spent some $5.6 million on building permits for the mixed-use development, which entails a 171-unit apartment complex and 75-key hotel in downtown Santa Ana, less than a mile from One Broadway Plaza.

Harrah is also eyeing the former site of the Northgate Gonzalez market in downtown Santa Ana as the home of a new passion project.

That development, named El Niño, is a proposed training center for boxing and baile folklórico, a traditional style of dance that can be traced back to the indigenous people of Mexico.

The center will target low-income students, whose families may not be able to afford other more costly extracurricular, after-school programs.

Harrah plans to invest about $3 million into the facility; a clear timeline has not been set.

Big Philanthropy

The El Niño plan marks a continuation of Caribou’s impact on education in Santa Ana.
Harrah previously designed, built and financed the campus for charter school Orange County School of the Arts, which was completed in 2000.

While the project did not bring much return on investment for Caribou, the gratitude expressed by OCSA’s students made it well worth the time and money spent, Harrah said.

He encountered one of those students while shopping one day at a grocery store in Newport Beach. A young girl recognized him and thanked him for establishing the school, telling her mother then that “I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for him,” Harrah recalled.

“No amount of money in the world meant anything at that point,” he said.

“It makes me tear up just thinking about it.”

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Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung
Sonia Chung joined the Orange County Business Journal in 2021 as their Marketing Creative Director. In her role she creates all visual content as it relates to the marketing needs for the sales and events teams. Her responsibilities include the creation of marketing materials for six annual corporate events, weekly print advertisements, sales flyers in correspondence to the editorial calendar, social media graphics, PowerPoint presentation decks, e-blasts, and maintains the online presence for Orange County Business Journal’s corporate events.
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