Bernie MacElhenny, a major wheeler and dealer in Santa Barbara real estate circles from the 1960s through the 80s, died last week at age 75, laid low by a series of strokes.

Colorful, brash, shrewd, confrontational, and creative, MacElhenny was the king of the deal. At one time, his company, MacElhenny and Levy, boasted 1,000 residential real estate agents and 30 offices.

After selling out to Merrill Lynch in 1981, MacElhenny tried his hand at commercial development, building the Plaza de Oro movie theater complex and the El Mercado plaza by State and Highway 154. For years, MacElhenny sought to win approval for a major commercial development scheme centered at Santa Barbara’s downtown railroad depot, but his outsized dreams and even bigger personality never found favor with City Hall.

A fifth-generation Santa Barbaran, MacElhenny grew up on the city’s Westside, cut his teeth with Eric Bruckner, the now deceased pioneer of real estate syndicators, and then teamed with Jerome Levy, father of William Levy of La Entrada fame and misfortune. MacElhenny’s relationship with other developers of his era may have been one of “mutual love, hate, and jealousy,” according to his son Michael.

When it came to making a deal, few could rival MacElhenny in calculating the angles. Although MacElhenny’s ruthlessness engendered wariness among peers, he was a genius when it came to motivating his sales force. “He was the ultimate cheerleader,” said his son. “He could spin people away from the shortcomings and make them believe in themselves.”


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