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First They Purchased a House. Then They Bought Up the Entire Town.

Saji Daniel and his fiancée, Shannon McGauley, were holed up in their Cleveland-area home amid the pandemic in October 2020 when they got an unexpected call from their neighbor, Lou Keppler.

Dr. Keppler was inviting them to visit Foxburg, a small town in Pennsylvania’s picturesque Allegheny River Valley owned by a longtime friend of his. To the couple, it sounded like a nice day of leaf-peeping and an escape from the city. But Dr. Keppler had a secret hope: That Mr. Daniel and Ms. McGauley might buy the town.

For decades, the revitalization of Foxburg—with a population of roughly 180 people—had been the pet project of Dr. Keppler’s friend, retired spinal surgeon Art Steffee. Dr. Steffee owned a sprawling residential compound in the area and had invested millions of dollars into developing Foxburg. Now, Dr. Steffee was 86 and looking to pass the baton.

Mr. Daniel had been looking for a small farm outside Cleveland where he and Ms. McGauley could spend weekends, but he had never heard of Foxburg and certainly never anticipated taking on a project of such magnitude, he said. But he said he quickly fell in love with Dr. Steffee and his passion for the small town. Both medical entrepreneurs who had sold their companies, the two men had similar trajectories. Dr. Steffee felt like a kindred spirit. 

After visiting Foxburg, he and Ms. McGauley “talked about it the whole way home, thinking there’s a reason we were brought here,” said Mr. Daniel. “We slept on it and the next morning we called Art.”

Over the past two years, Mr. Daniel has purchased RiverStone and paid several million dollars for the roughly 50 other properties Dr. Steffee owned in town. He declined to say exactly how much he paid, citing a nondisclosure agreement. Dr. Keppler and his wife, Cindy Keppler, who visited Dr. Steffee often over the past two decades from their home in Cleveland, became minority investors, too.

The greenhouse at RiverStone.
Photo: Kristian Thacker for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Daniel, who has two adult daughters, had no illusions that the town would be a cash cow. In fact, it is costing him money. “This is a legacy property we can leave for the kids,” he said. “They’ll have it forever and ever. They can say, ‘My dad developed this town.’”

Once news of Mr. Daniel’s purchase leaked out, Foxburg’s rumor mill went into overdrive. Locals had already gossiped that Oprah Winfrey was buying the place, while others pointed to country music star Jason Aldean and onetime Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Others thought a casino would be built, or even a dog-racing track, Mr. Daniel said.

“Did you ever hear of the Amish telegraph?” Dr. Steffee joked about local gossip. “The Amish telegraph is faster than your iPhone.”

In some cases, the locals have been downright suspicious. 

The rear of RiverStone’s main house.
Photo: Kristian Thacker for The Wall Street Journal

A historic map of Foxburg on display at RiverStone.
Photo: Kristian Thacker for The Wall Street Journal

“There’s different factions, like everywhere else,” said local tour guide Kurt Crosbie. “There’s still the old guard who don’t want to see change.”

Mr. Daniel said his goal is to create jobs and get the community thriving again. He has hired a consulting company to devise the best strategy for adding to the town. He and Ms. McGauley are toying with numerous ideas, including launching festivals and fairs and opening a community center, ice-cream store and bakery. Along with the Kepplers, they have already started renovating the local hotel, which they said had fallen into disrepair. 

Still, Mr. Daniel said he wants to keep the town “quaint.”

Saji Daniel holds his favorite goat, Kane, as the other goats try to get his attention at RiverStone.
Photo: Kristian Thacker for The Wall Street Journal

“It’s not going to be commercialized where we have strip malls or any of that,” he said.

Since news of the purchase became public in 2020, Mr. Daniel said he has been busy keeping up with requests from locals: The concert hall operators are seeking better internet access, for example, and the gallery needs some renovation work. 

The biggest challenge so far has been finding workers to staff the local businesses, Mr. Daniel said. Sometimes, when there are staff shortages, he and Ms. McGauley are called upon to help bottle wine at the winery or even to make beds at the hotel; he said he recently learned the meaning of the term “hospital corners.” 

Mr. Daniel said he and Ms. McGauley, who previously split their time between Cleveland and Miami, ultimately plan to live primarily in Foxburg. City people all their lives, they have acquired goats, donkeys and horses and are adjusting to country life: They were dumbfounded when both of their female donkeys gave birth last year, despite the lack of a male donkey on the property. (It turned out the animals had been pregnant when they purchased them.)

Dr. Steffee stops by RiverStone occasionally to collect his prized stones, which he is moving to his new home—a hilltop property about a mile away, overlooking the river. As for the town, Dr. Steffee said he has a request: a doughnut shop.

“I would be their number one customer,” he said.

A view of Foxburg from the water.
Photo: Kristian Thacker for The Wall Street Journal

Write to Katherine Clarke at Katherine.Clarke@wsj.com

 

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