BALTIMORE, Md. — Leroy M. Merritt, chairman and founder of Merritt Properties and Merritt Athletic Clubs, died Jan. 25 due to complications arising from cancer. He was 79.
“Leroy’s integrity, generosity and good humor will be deeply missed by everyone who had the opportunity to work with him,” said Scott Dorsey, president of Merritt Properties. “This is a very sad time for all of us.”
Dorsey, who was named president of Merritt Properties in 1997 and has been with the company since 1972, said, “As a company, all of us — Robb (Merritt, vice president and Leroy’s son), the Merritt team and I — will continue to honor Leroy’s legacy of respect, loyalty and service.”
Leroy M. Merritt was born in 1930 in Dundalk, a blue-collar neighborhood once dominated by the steel mill and shipyard at Sparrows Point. His parents, Roy and Ruth Merritt, managed a restaurant, Thompson’s Sea Girt House, where Merritt first learned about the importance of working hard and taking care of customers.
After graduating from Dundalk High School, Merritt was awarded a Senatorial Scholarship to Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College). To help make ends meet, he ran a catering business at night and during the summer, worked for his uncles who owned a masonry contracting business.
By the mid-1960s, Merritt had gone into the construction business and had built more than 60 houses, many with his own hands and most on spec. Ed St. John was also involved in residential real estate at the time, but both men recognized the opportunities offered by the commercial market. When St. John asked a business associate if he could recommend an honest builder, he pointed St. John to Merritt and they soon became business partners. Their first building was a 16,000-square-foot warehouse on Stafford Street in southwest Baltimore.
In 1971, after partnering on numerous real estate projects, Merritt and St. John recognized they each had their own unique way of doing business and agreed to split the company. Instead of engaging appraisers, accountants and attorneys, St. John divided their properties into two packages and Merritt chose one. They remained friendly competitors.
For the next 20 years, Merritt Properties continued to build warehouse projects, while diversifying into flex, office, retail and design-build projects.
Merritt guided the company through the recession of the early 1990s, which was especially devastating for the commercial real estate industry. Merritt Properties remained stable, emerging into a period of tremendous growth and change. Today, the company owns and manages the largest privately-held commercial real estate portfolio in the Baltimore/Washington region with 16 million square feet in more than 70 locations.
In 1977, Merritt opened the Towson Merritt Athletic Club. In addition to traditional Nautilus equipment, the club featured several courts for racquetball — just as the sport was gaining in popularity. As racquetball became one of the fastest-growing sports in the 80s, Merritt Athletic Club added locations and became well-known among enthusiasts. The company now operates nine full-service health clubs throughout the Baltimore area, with racquetball and squash courts in five of the club’s locations. Leroy Merritt’s racquet, once on display at the Museum of American History, is now housed at the Smithsonian.
In 2000, Merritt stepped away from day-to-day management of Merritt Properties but maintained an office at the company, dubbing himself the CFO, “Chief Fun Officer.”
Long known for his generosity and service to the community, Merritt founded the Leroy M. Merritt Charitable Trust in 1999. With a focus on providing for the immediate needs of disadvantaged women and children, the trust supports a number of local organizations, including Boys Hope, Bea Gaddy, House of Ruth and the Maryland Food Bank.
Merritt is survived by his wife Gail Fitzpatrick Merritt; a son, Robb Merritt; a daughter, Nancy Merritt Haigley, and five grandchildren, all of Baltimore. His first wife, Jean Curl Merritt, died in 1996.