Northwest Arkansas Developer Gary Combs Dies

Gary Combs, a former northwest Arkansas real estate developer, died from cancer-related complications on Saturday, sources have told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.

Combs, 59, had been living out of the country while seeking treatment, the sources said, but died in a California hospital. A flamboyant and at times controversial figure, Combs became known as much for his legal battles with local banks and publicity stunts as for his wide-ranging business interests.

Most recently, Washington County Circuit Judge Kim Smith issued a warrant for Combs' arrest. That was in July, and stemmed from an ongoing case with First State Bank.

"One thing that became clear was that he was going to do things his way until the end," said Tom Terminella, a friend and former business partner of Combs. "He told me Kim Smith and the circuit court could kiss his ass.

"He was defiant to the end."

Terminella and others also painted Combs as an intelligent, aggressive businessman whose bravado sometimes overshadowed a soft heart.

"I know he got the reputation for being a tough guy, but he was really very soft-hearted," said Fayetteville attorney Robert Ginnaven. "You might not have always agreed with him, but he was plain-spoken. He called it like he saw it."

Terminella called Combs, who was instrumental in the development of the Interstate 540 corridor and projects like Pinnacle Hills Parkway, the J.B. Hunt Parkway Tower and The Peaks, "one of the hardest-working guys that I know."

"He would dissect people, find their weaknesses and exploit them," Rogers architect Collins Haynes added. "It wasn't cruel or unethical, but he had a vast knowledge on lots of things that he would use to his advantage. [Taking] risk for him was the same as breathing. He made it work. He loved risk and reward. He was real top-heavy on testosterone.

"He knew what he wanted and didn't care if he had to be confrontational to get it. If they were an impediment to what he wanted, they were toast."

Combs owned a contracting company, Basic Construction, and Basic Block Group, which made bricks and concrete blocks. He also was married to Don Tyson's daughter, Carla, for a time.

Combs also built apartments and subdivisions in various locations, and it was some of those subdivisions that led to Combs' high-profile quarrels with numerous banks. He was involved in lender-liability litigation - both as a plaintiff and defendant - with FSB and four other lenders in recent years.

Haynes and Terminella also remembered Combs for his varied interests away from work - from art and Asian-style architecture to rare automobiles and flying helicopters.

"There wasn't anything that guy couldn't drive, fly or operate," Terminella said.

"He was a delight when you got him away from the normal business environment," Haynes added. "He knew a lot about history and he was probably one of the greatest and eloquent storytellers I've ever been around.

"And to take up flying a helicopter on your own, just as a hobby? Give me a break. He only knew how to do things at full torque."

(Northwest Arkansas Business Journal reporter Paul Gatling contributed to this report.)