Suzanne H. Paciulli couldn't stop smiling. Sandra B. Aman couldn't stop talking. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, with one simple 8-to-1 vote, had just gone a long way to making both of them rich.
Paciulli and Aman had invested in Media General Cable of Fairfax County Inc., which Monday won a rugged competition for a 15-year cable television monopoly in the county. While the 215 local investors in the losing Fairfax Telecommunications Co. drifted away to ponder the loss of their $870,000 worth of stock and seven years of hard work, Media General's five local shareholders and its executives celebrated at a potluck picnic at the home of builder Herbert L. Aman III and his wife.
"It's awfully easy to be a winner: the words just flowed," said Media General investor Sandra B. Aman. She stands to receive as much as $400,000 of cable stock while risking, according to a county consultant, $6,000.
The national cable companies that lost or dropped out of the four-year cable franchise process in Fairfax likely will go on to win franchises in Montgomery or Loudoun or elsewhere around the country. For their Fairfax partners, however, the one-shot, winner-take-all gamble is over.
Both sides' local investors, whose good names or political influence were valuable assets for the outside cable companies, could earn money far in excess of the cash they had to invest. But they also risked losing money, unlike the so-called "rent-a-citizens" in many cable companies who gave only time and their names in exchange for stock.
Fairfax Telecommunications stockholders have not yet thrown away their stock certificates. The company may contest the county decision in court, two investors said yesterday. That possibility, however, did little to cheer the "shocked and crestfallen and very, very disappointed" investors who attended a wake-like meeting in the Springfield Hilton Monday night, according to company founder and stockholder John N. Papajohn.
Jeffrey N. Silverstein, a Burke lawyer who lost $15,000 -- about half his annual salary, he said -- was too despondent to attend. The 33-year-old father of two knew from the start he was taking a risk, he said, but as he spent time learning about "strand maps" and "ascertainments" and other cable lore, he grew increasingly enthusiastic -- and optimistic.
"I thought we had done our homework and worn our white hats and done things the right way, and somehow it all got turned around on us," Silverstein said. "In some ways it is very disillusioning."
Silverstein said he expected the award to be granted years ago, and as one major cable company after another tired of waiting and pulled out of Fairfax, Silverstein's hopes increased. "We went from something that was speculative to something that was a lot less speculative, and then we dropped all the way to the bottom," he said. "That's one of the reasons the loss is even more stunning."
Silverstein said he is not bitter, and he has kind words for competitor Aman, who happens to be his law office landlord. But he said he will have a hard time applying for the tax deduction his "worthless" stock entitles him to. "I could always frame it," he joked.
The prospects are considerably more cheerful for Paciulli, a real estate broker, the Amans, communications lawyer Richard F. Kennedy and developer Edwin W. Lynch Jr. Kennedy first approached Herb Aman about two years ago to discuss an investment in cable.
"Herb was a little skeptical because of the enormity of it, but I just said it was exactly what we'd been looking for in terms of diversifying," Sandra Aman recalls. Her husband sat down with Paciulli in the Country Club of Fairfax, enticed his friend Lynch into the group and then began interviewing cable television companies.
Herbert Aman and Lynch have both been active political contributors in Northern Virginia, and Sandra Aman is the niece of former Northern Virginia representative Joel Broyhill ("True but irrelevant," she says). After reaching an agreement with Media General Inc. last fall, the five maintained a low profile during the franchising battle.
The agreement they reached with Media General, which owns the Richmond daily newspapers and several television stations, called for each to invest $3,000 at the start and another $3,000 if Media General won. They will now receive at least two shares of stock for each share they buy.
Their stock purchases will be financed by loans of as much as $400,000 from United Virginia Bank, according to their agreement, with Media General the guarantor.
When they reach the $400,000 limit, they will receive any additional stock for free as the company grows, allowing the local investors to maintain a 9.5 percent interest in the cable company. In five years, they can require Media General to buy them out, either in full or enough to pay off their loans.
So does Sandra Aman feel rich? "Ask me about seven years from now," she said. "We're not out buying castles, in the air or otherwise."
"It feels fine," Paciulli said. "After working in this real estate market for the last 18 months, it's nice to smile."