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Tampa Bay Area
Business Observer Friday, Jul. 30, 2010 9 years ago

Circling the Deals

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Veteran land dealer Mark Cooney is forging ahead with his unusually named firm, The Land Sharks, despite the tough real estate market. A move across the hall helped.
by: Carl Cronan Editor/Tampa Bay

Mark Cooney has seen the highs and lows of land sales over the last 25 years, and he is confident that the current real estate market will rebound after bottoming out last year.


He offers his own company as proof. He and land sales partner Randy Mills launched The Land Sharks in 2007 under the auspices of GVA Advantis, a Washington, D.C.-based commercial real estate services firm.


Last July, GVA Advantis shut down its national offices, including its Tampa location at the Bayport Plaza building on Rocky Point. Cooney and Mills were displaced only one month before joining the Duncan Cos., a Tampa real estate brokerage that has its offices directly across the Bayport Plaza lobby from where GVA Advantis used to be.


Despite that experience, along with a sharp decline in land prices in west and central Florida, Cooney expresses limitless optimism that the market will rebound. Reasons range from ongoing expansion of the Panama Canal, benefiting the Port of Tampa and other seaside ports, to another hurricane season free of local landfalls so far this summer.


In some cases, obstacles to key land deals have been overcome naturally by way of infrastructure improvements nearby, such as expanded roads, or mapping changes that technically took tracts out of floodplains. Tax credits that weren't previously available also make a difference in deals.


“Time gets you over humps,” Cooney says during a recent overview of the ups and downs of land prices in the Tampa Bay area and all of Florida over the last decade. “For the last three or four years, most land has just laid around growing weeds. The time for spring cleaning is getting near.”


In the years prior to the Land Sharks' launch, land sales in the Tampa Bay market were going for as much as $250 per square foot, according to Cooney and Mills. Those sales have fallen back by as much as 75% because of various recessionary factors such as the condominium development bust and an overall lack of demand for raw dirt.


Mills points to two prime examples in downtown Tampa, each involving sites that were destined to become high-rise luxury condos. The former Maas Bros. department store site at Franklin and Tampa streets that sold for $11 million in 2006 traded again earlier this year for $2.7 million and is now being paved for parking. Also, the one-time Trump Tower Tampa site on South Ashley Drive, which sold for $16 million in 2004, is now on the market for just above $4 million.


“These prices are significantly off what we were experiencing back in 2004 to 2006,” Mills observes. He says land sales in Tampa's central business district are currently tracking between $55 and $65 per square foot.


With those substantial discounts, it appears the deals are coming back. Cooney says the number of new listings, site searches and signed contracts at his firm are at their highest level in the last three years.


The biggest difference now, he says, is buyers' ability to secure financing and deal with receivers rather than direct owners. Investors must now get more creative in funding land purchases as well as determining the best uses for their properties.


“We can't do anything the way we used to,” Cooney says, pointing to the wild lending and trading days of the mid-2000s. “Nobody's buying 500 acres and taking it to DRI (development of regional impact status) anymore. You have to look at every possibility.”


Cooney rattles off a short list of reasons why land deals will rebound in the next few years, starting with his own bold prediction that Tampa voters will approve funding for a new light-rail system in November while also rejecting the Amendment 4 statewide growth management referendum.


He also predicts consumer confidence will rebound in time for the upcoming holiday shopping season, a re-emergence of multi-family rental development in late 2011 and the eventual cleanup of the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.


Cooney, who has extensive experience in federal government as well as private sector land deals, says life sciences and energy related businesses will soon become big users of local sites. In the meantime, banks and pharmacies are leading the charge for corner sites in high-traffic areas.


As for the Land Sharks' future, he foresees longevity with the Duncan Cos., led by veteran real estate broker Ronnie Duncan. Cooney and Duncan have known each other for at least 20 years and previously worked together at Grubb & Ellis.


While Cooney, 57, intends to keep working well past mandatory retirement age, he intends to keep the company going into another generation with Mills and Michele Whalen, director of marketing and administration, leading the charge.


“We've got great latitude to do whatever is needed to advance the Land Sharks brand,” he says. “We have never looked back. We're still growing.”

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