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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 20, 2014 4 years ago

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Commercial real estate lending, the bread and butter of community banking in Florida, is on the rise as business owners start borrowing again.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

When Bradenton-based First America Bank opened a loan office last year in Fort Myers, commercial real estate lending at the bank received a boost.

Of the 41 banks based on the Gulf Coast, First America Bank posted the highest annual percentage increase in commercial real estate loans on an annual percentage basis, up 59% as of March 31, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

“It's not like a tidal wave, but you can feel it starting to happen,” cautions Allen Langford, president of First America Bank.

Indeed, from Pasco to Collier counties, commercial real estate loans grew 14% to nearly $5 billion at the 41 banks headquartered in the region for the year ending March 31, according to the FDIC.

“What's interesting is we're seeing a lot of interest from entrepreneurs,” says Trevor Burgess, CEO of C1 Bank in St. Petersburg. Loans to entrepreneurs are secured by commercial real estate.

“We are very active in the [Small Business Administration] SBA program making loans to small- and medium-sized businesses,” Burgess says. Health care and hospitality are two industries that stand out, he says.

C1's 53% annual growth in commercial real estate loans as of March 31 is partly due to acquisitions, Burgess says. For example, C1 acquired First Community Bank of Southwest Florida from the FDIC last summer after state regulators shut down the Fort Myers-based bank.

Clearly the economic recovery has emboldened entrepreneurs to borrow money. At FineMark National Bank & Trust in Fort Myers, annual commercial real estate loan volume grew 55% as of March 31.

“Those numbers are reflective of the general economy improving,” says Joe Catti, the bank's president and CEO, who notes standouts are medical and other professional services.

Still, memories of the downturn remain fresh in many minds.

“We are very cautious because commercial real estate took a pretty big hit back in 2009 and 2010,” says Joseph Chillura, the CEO of USAmeribank in Largo. “We are requiring equity from our borrowers in all situations.”

But USAmeribank has helped commercial real estate buyers buy property during the downturn at bargain prices.

“Over the last four or five years, the majority of our loans have been on properties that were undervalued and repositioned,” Chillura says. “We're very active in the multifamily apartment sector, retail, industrial and warehouse.”

Bankers can take comfort in that commercial real estate values have rebounded and borrowers are better off today.

“Business balance sheets are getting better and they're feeling more confident,” says Gary Tice, chairman and CEO of First National Bank of the Gulf Coast in Naples.

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