- Associated Press - Saturday, February 8, 2020

AIKEN, S.C. (AP) - The plan to open a French restaurant and bakery in the spring is only the tip of a very big iceberg when it comes to David Meunier’s investments in Aiken and the surrounding area.

A former race car driver in Europe, Meunier was born in France and raised in Switzerland.

He is a polo enthusiast who has his own team, La Bourgogne, and two strings of ponies.

Meunier, 54, also flies his own helicopter.

Last year, he began buying properties here after visiting for the first time in May and then returning to take another look around in October.

“I am a real estate developer,” said Meunier during a recent lunch interview at The Willcox. “You can’t play polo all the time because some of the horses, they get injured, the players get injured and the weather is not good sometimes. And me, I’m a workaholic. I cannot not do anything. I have to do something, so everywhere I go play polo, I buy property, and when I’m not playing polo, I take care of the property.”

Moving forward, Meunier wants to spend the spring and fall in Aiken, the winter in Florida and the summer in upstate New York because of the polo season’s schedule.

“Today, I have maybe 250 properties in all,” Meunier said.

And he wants to buy even more, especially in this part of South Carolina.

“I really fell in love with Aiken,” said Meunier, who is married and has five children. “I like that it’s a horse town. I like the character of the buildings. I like history. I like the train that when it goes through town, you can hear the horn. And there are these little streets that have clay on them. It’s lovely. It reminds me of Chantilly, which is in France.”

Meunier purchased the building in Aiken for the French bakery and restaurant, which will be called La Parisienne, for $200,000. Formerly the home of such eateries as Olive Oils and Swamp Fox, it is on Chesterfield Street South.

“There are not that many restaurants downtown, and we realized that there is nothing French around here,” Meunier said. “When I saw this little place, I immediately pictured a French bakery there.”

His friends from Florida, restaurateurs Jean and Myriam Dandonneau, will run La Parisienne. They also will be Meunier’s partners in the ownership of the business, but not the building.

La Parisienne will serve quiches, waffles, dessert crepes, fresh pastries, salads and sandwiches such as the croque madame and croque monsieur.

On another real estate investment front, Meunier bought 91.7 acres on Coleman Bridge Road near Wagener for $500,000 from Thomas J. Biddle and began a push to acquire other land nearby to develop a polo center.

Meunier might divide part of the property into 10-acre tracts to sell to others, and they would have access to two polo fields, a stick and ball area, and an exercise track.

“If I can get enough land, I will do a third polo field,” Meunier said.

To maintain those fields, he will bring Argentina’s Alejandro Battro as a consultant.

“He is what we call the pope of the polo fields,” Meunier said. “He is the best ever, and I will follow all of his recommendations.”

Eventually, Meunier would like to hold a major polo event at the center.

But not until “I am confident that my fields are ready and in good playing shape and I can get something properly with the VIP service,” he said. “What I want to do is have a $100,000, six-goal tournament with six-chukker games. And I really want to have (teams made up of) two amateurs and two pros. I don’t want three pros and one amateur.”

There also will be a big party.

“Not a party, as in wild,” Meunier said, “but something with some camaraderie. I like to bring some social flare into polo. We all play and then, boom, everybody goes home. There is not enough - what do you call it? - mingling together, which, you know, is nice.”

Also part of Meunier’s real estate investment strategy for Aiken is the purchase of properties in what he describes as “challenged” neighborhoods.

“I started looking in low-income areas, and then I started buying,” he said. “I think I closed on about 19 properties (to begin with) in Crosland Park, New Ellenton and Barnwell County. My goal is to have 50 rental properties here by the end of this year.”

Urban revitalization is one of Meunier’s specialties. Elsewhere in this country, he has renovated residences and other structures - some of which have been condemned - in a variety of “challenged” districts, including Miami’s Overtown and Wynwood neighborhoods.

“I have the reputation of converting an eyesore into an asset,” he said. “The houses, when the people move in, are houses that I would move into. I make them up to my standard, but I don’t have a crazy standard. I have lunch with my groom, and then I have dinner with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, it makes no difference to me. I am comfortable.”

Unlike many landlords, Meunier welcomes Section 8 tenants, who receive government rent subsidies, to his properties.

“I like to deal with them because I like to give them the opportunity for decent housing at a price they can afford,” Meunier said. “I like to help veterans in the VASH (HUD-VASH) program that are homeless. I deal with a lot of other agencies that help battered women and people with diseases like AIDS.”

In a 2004 bizjournals.com story by Ed Duggan about Meunier’s rehabilitation efforts in Miami’s Overtown district, Miami Police Capt. Bernard Johnson said, “David Meunier has been extremely cooperative and has brought forth safety, as well as improving life in the community.”

Meunier also makes enough money with the property he upgrades to enjoy a lifestyle that includes the pursuit of an expensive equestrian sport, his helicopter, and all sorts of roadway vehicles that provide him with a mobile office and also transport for his horses and polo-related equipment.

“Once it takes me two months of rent to pay the property tax (on a house), I usually sell,” Meunier said. “Sometimes I buy houses just because my guys have nothing to do because everything is up and running. We buy a house, we fix it up and we sell it. My guys keep busy all the time.”

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