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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Sep. 15, 2006 15 years ago

Coffee Talk

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Coffee Talk: Southwest may add Fort Myers flightsThe real estate market may be in the dumps, but at least one segment of the advertising industry that caters to it - billboards - is booming. Sarasota employers are not an optimistic bunch, according to Manpower Inc.'s most recent employment outlook survey.Coral Gables-based Cornerstone Group is touting its new all-concrete town home community as the cure to homeowners' insurance woes.If the residential real estate market is in a slump, you wouldn't know it based on investors' appetites.Morgan Stanley executives say they've raised $1.75 billion for Morgan Stanley Real Estate Fund V U.S., the institutional fund that recently bought Babcock Ranch in partnership with West Palm Beach developer Syd Kitson. Tampa-based Suncoast Roofers Supply (profiled in the May 12 Review) has opened its 15th location, this one in Gainesville, home of the University of Florida Gators.When the public sector borrows from the business world, it tends to raise eyebrows and lower costs. In Sarasota County, that lesson is coming home in the Office of Financial Planning.Pulte Homes and its DiVosta subsidiary are two of the best homebuilders on the Gulf Coast for customer satisfaction, according to J.D. Power and Associates. Yet another Palm Avenue development RFPThere's an anti-development fight in St. Pete Beach, a south Pinellas County coastal community of 10,000, and Wa

Coffee Talk

+ Southwest may add Fort Myers flights

Coffee Talk hears Southwest Airlines may add new nonstop destinations from Fort Myers. Among the likely candidates: Nashville and Houston.

It's been nearly a year since Southwest Airlines started operations at Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers. Nonstop destinations currently include Baltimore, Chicago, Long Island, Orlando and Philadelphia.

However, Southwest quietly tested a Houston nonstop on Saturdays during the recent spring tourist season with good results, even with no advertising or promotion. A nonstop to Houston would open up western routes, something airport officials are eagerly seeking.

Coffee Talk also hears Nashville is under consideration. Although Southwest doesn't have a hub system like other airlines, its substantial traffic in and out of Nashville would give Fort Myers passengers more choices.

The airline's biggest surprise: Orlando. Although it's one of Southwest's shortest hauls, passenger traffic between Orlando and Fort Myers has been especially strong.

+ Banking on billboards

The real estate market may be in the dumps, but at least one segment of the advertising industry that caters to it - billboards - is booming.

Spending on outdoor billboard advertising by real estate agents, agencies and brokers, as well as developers and developments, reached $61 million last year, a 23% jump from 2004, reports the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. The growth has been continuing in 2006, too, as first quarter revenue grew 36% compared to the first quarter of 2005. Campaigns are more targeted and somewhat scaled back, the agency reports, but there is more money being spent as the industry struggles to find buyers.

The association says one reason for the growing interest in billboards is a shared demographic. The most frequent drivers who see billboards are between 35 and 54 years old and make more than $100,000 a year, the association says, while the average age for first time home buyers is 32 and the average age for repeat home purchasers is 45.

Here are the top ten spenders on billboards nationwide from the real estate industry in 2005:

Agents/Agencies

RE/MAX

Buy Owner Realty

Coldwell Banker Real Estate

Tarbell Realtors

Century 21 Real Estate

Weichert Realtors

Home Discovery Realty

Expert Realty

Foxtons Real Estate Agency

Watson Realty

Developers/Developments

Centex Homes

DR Horton

Ryland Homes

Richard American Homes

Beazer Homes

Shea Homes

Pardee Homes

Perry Homes

Ginn Real Estate Development

Ryan Homes

Source: Outdoor Advertising Association of America

Sarasota hiring slump forecast

Sarasota employers are not an optimistic bunch, according to Manpower Inc.'s most recent employment outlook survey. A surprisingly puny 17% of Sarasota employers queried for the survey expect to add employees in the fourth quarter of this year - the same percentage that expect to reduce employees.

That compares with 30% who expect to add employees in Tampa Bay, 32% in Fort Myers/Naples and 34% statewide. It is also down from the 23% level projected for the third quarter of this year by Sarasota employers.

Conversely, the 17% that expect to decrease employees compares with 10% in Tampa Bay and 0% in Fort Myers/Naples. More than half of Sarasota employers expect no change, suggesting a relatively stagnant market through the end of the year.

Employment outlook survey

Metro area Increase No Change Decrease Don't Know Net

Fort Myers/Naples 32% 68% 0% 0% 32%

Tampa/St. Pete 30% 57% 10% 3% 20%

Sarasota 17% 53% 17% 13% 0%

Source: Manpower, Inc.

MORE HURRICANE RESISTANT?

Coral Gables-based Cornerstone Group is touting its new all-concrete town home community as the cure to homeowners' insurance woes.

The developer, which claims it's the first company to include the building method in residential in the Tampa Bay area, is building CityView at 4821 Bristol Bay Way, Tampa.

Some single-family homes are constructed with concrete panels poured in place, but CityView's 138 units' floors will feature 8,000-pound concrete panels built at a Winter Haven factory and brought to the development by truck.

Insurance companies favor the concrete structure over wood because it's stronger and water- and fire-retardant. It also costs less than traditional construction and usually goes up in a third less time.

Cornerstone Group President Leon Wolfe says: "This is simply not seen in affordable residential construction because the mechanics and the techniques involved are relatively novel."

+ Morgan Stanley raises money for Babcock Ranch

If the residential real estate market is in a slump, you wouldn't know it based on investors' appetites.

Morgan Stanley executives say they've raised $1.75 billion for Morgan Stanley Real Estate Fund V U.S., the institutional fund that recently bought Babcock Ranch in partnership with West Palm Beach developer Syd Kitson. "MSREF V U.S. generated tremendous investor interest raising nearly four times the equity capital of its predecessor fund MSREF IV Domestic in 2000," says Michael Franco, managing director of MSREF U.S.

The Morgan Stanley fund and Kitson bought the company that owned the 91,000-acre ranch that straddles Charlotte and Lee counties for an undisclosed sum. They sold nearly 74,000 acres to the state and Lee County for about $350 million and they plan to build about 19,500 homes on the remaining 17,000 acres.

"Compelling investment opportunities continue to exist throughout the United States from improving property market fundamentals, secular demographic trends and take-private transactions," Franco says.

Besides Babcock Ranch, the fund will invest in other undisclosed residential and commercial developments as well as publicly traded and privately held real estate companies and portfolios. The fund already has already committed 60% of its capital to these types of investments.

+ Suncoast Roofers expands to gator-land

Tampa-based Suncoast Roofers Supply (profiled in the May 12 Review) has opened its 15th location, this one in Gainesville, home of the University of Florida Gators.

It's a source of personal pride for Suncoast President Bill Tamayo, who has an economics degree from UF, to open a shop in Gainesville.

In 1995, Tamayo assumed management of Suncoast, then a struggling company with two small Pinellas County locations and about $4 million in sales. The company has since grown to 15 distribution centers in Florida and reported sales of $215 million last year.

Two more locations are expected to open this year.

Kenny Morris, who took the Tampa branch from $1 million in monthly sales to $3.5 million, making it one of the top three Suncoast branches, is in charge of the Gainesville location.

+ Building a financial crystal ball

When the public sector borrows from the business world, it tends to raise eyebrows and lower costs. In Sarasota County, that lesson is coming home in the Office of Financial Planning. Instead of using the past five years to forecast revenue trends, the county is taking the approach of big business and has created a multi-part statistical model.

The database, powered by the Forecast Pro XE software, looks at a huge selection of data including historical revenue from virtually every revenue source and a number of local and national economic indicators.

From that data, Robert Kozash, a budget/management analyst, has been able to create forecasting models for county revenue that, over the past year and a half, has consistently tracked actual revenues to within 2.5% - an accuracy rate virtually unheard of in the world of large municipality financials.

The database driven models now cover all of the county's departments, which previously had been governed by some 36 different forecasts.

"This forecast is really good at identifying anomalies," Kozash says. "If you just look at the past five years worth of data ,all of those years are given equal weight. Under this statistical approach, we can pick out those models that just don't fit."

Aside from the obvious advantage to the county of knowing how much money will come in to any certain department, the models have secondary uses, including in hurricane preparation.

"We have a better idea of the revenue impact to the county if a hurricane were to hit during a particular month," Kozash says.

The multiple data point approach has also yielded some unexpected relationships for county government officials. Kozash says he was surprised to find that the number of people riding the county's bus service is tied to passengers arriving at the airport and not necessarily to population or gas prices.

Sarasota County's revenue trailblazing has attracted the attention of national forecasters and Kozash was invited to speak at the Forecasting Summit Sept. 25-27 in Boston.

+ The survey says . . . Pulte

Pulte Homes and its DiVosta subsidiary are two of the best homebuilders on the Gulf Coast for customer satisfaction, according to J.D. Power and Associates.

The importance of customer satisfaction grows in a slumping market, J.D. Power analysts say, because builders are no longer selling homes just by showing up, like they were two or three years ago. "As builders fight for every sale they close in this downturned market," says Paula Sonkin, executive director of the real estate industries practice at J.D. Power, "a reputation for customer satisfaction becomes more important than ever, as it helps builders differentiate themselves from the competition."

Palm Beach Gardens-based DiVosta was ranked first in both the Fort Myers-Naples market and the Tampa region, which includes Sarasota and Bradenton. Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Pulte ranked second in Fort Myers-Naples and third in Tampa, behind Tampa-based Tripp Trademark.

The study, released Sept. 13, rates builders in 34 of the largest U.S. homebuilding markets. Homebuilders that have closed on at least 150 new construction single-family homes in 2005 are included in the survey; buyers provide feedback after living in the homes from four to 18 months and going through a list of 10 factors, including builder's warranty/customer service; home readiness; quality of workmanship/materials; and price/value.

In the Tampa market, DiVosta improved five points from last year's survey, performing well in eight categories, while in the Fort Myers-Naples market, the firm improved two index points from 2005, scoring high marks in six factors.

On overall markets, both regions of the Gulf Coast were ahead of the national 34-market average index ranking of 112. Tampa's average score was 113. The Fort Myers-Naples market's average was 120, up 12 points from 2005, making it one of the most-improved markets in the study.

+ WCI Communities stock gets a bounce

Like its homebuilding cousins, WCI Communities' stock has been in a free-fall lately as investors shun the industry.

But the Bonita Springs-based company seems to have halted the stock's relentless downward march when its board of directors recently approved the repurchase of an additional three million shares.

"It's fair to say the company feels the shares are undervalued," says Steve Zenker, WCI's vice president of investor relations.

Companies repurchase shares to reward investors by reducing the available shares, thereby raising the earnings per share for the remaining shareholders.

Since it started the buyback program in the fall of 2005, WCI has already repurchased three million shares and is authorized to buy back another two million shares. Now, with the authorization to repurchase an additional three million shares, WCI can buy back a total of five million shares, or nearly 12% of the company's 41.8 million shares outstanding.

No word on when the shares will be repurchased. Zenker says executives may update investors at the company's next quarterly conference call in the first week of November.

On Sept. 11, the first day of trading after WCI's announcement, the company's stock (symbol WCI) rose 6.8% and closed at $16.84 per share. The following day, September 12, it rose another 5.4% to $17.75. Still, the stock is still down about 40% off its 52-week high.

+ Yet another Palm Avenue development RFP

Any developers eyeing one of the most desirable and snake-bit parcels of vacant downtown Sarasota land have until Friday afternoon to submit a development plan to the city - if there are developers still interested in going through the agonizing and costly process.

For the third time, the city will seek a project through the request-for-proposal (RFP) process. Ersa Grae Corp., out of Houston, was the last developer to win an RFP with the city, but the project fell through when agreement could not be reached with adjoining businesses.

Zoning at the 2.25-acre plot of city-owned land on Palm Avenue, behind Sarasota News and Books, allows up to 50 residential units per acre and an 11-story maximum height, said Sarasota Chief Planner John Burg.

Stipulations in the city's RFP agreement call on prospective developers to detail how they would include public parking and attainable housing on the site. Developers who submit an RFP by the Friday deadline will be considered during the city's search for a prospective developer.

+ Business fight back against activists

There's an anti-development fight in St. Pete Beach, a south Pinellas County coastal community of 10,000, and Wal-Mart Inc. isn't at the center of the controversy.

Tallahassee consultant and former politician Patrick Slevin is now involved in what he says is an "unholy alliance" between two anti-growth groups - the city's Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG) and the statewide Hometown Democracy Initiative.

The beach's tourism-based economy is threatened by the anti-growth activists, Slevin says. To fight the groups, local business people have formed the Alliance for a Balanced Community (ABC) to raise public awareness, preserve representative democracy and find a proper balance between residents and a tourism-based economy. And they hired Slevin.

Anti-growth activists contend they're trying to protect the community through an initiative that would require voter approval of comprehensive plans and height changes. The group says it's going to the voters because the commission hasn't protected the community's interests.

But Tim Bogott, chairman of ABC and CEO of TradeWinds Island Resorts, says the activists are harming a community with a long history of citizenship, cooperation and goodwill.

"This vocal minority has attacked our representative government with the intent of disrupting the delicate balance between our city government, its residents and the local tourist-based economy," Bogott says in a Sept. 7 statement. "ABC seeks to preserve balance and civility during this time of uncertainty."

Slevin, who specializes in the NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back-Yard) phenomenon, questions CRG's motives.

"This is a classic case of elitists hijacking city hall to seize political power for themselves," Slevin says. "For years, the leaders of CRG have been against everything and have offered nothing, except divisive language. Their failure to mediate and find workable solutions regarding threats to our tourist-based economy is a clear indicator that they're more interested in using their platform for their own political gain."

The Florida Hometown Democracy group wants voters to approve all changes to comprehensive growth-management plans. Land-use lawyers say that initiative, if passed in the 2008 election, would stop development in the state.

"This unholy alliance between CRG and Florida Hometown Democracy has made St. Pete Beach ground zero for this outside group to promote their narrow, anti-change interests and the leaders of CRG have become willing accomplices, putting our community's balanced way of life at risk," Slevin says.

The activists' groups dispute the claim, but Slevin says PAC records, Web sites and petitions show St. Pete Beach is being used as a guinea pig.

Treasure Island lawyer Kenneth L. Weiss, who represents CRG, says his clients are engineers, business people, retirees and lawyers whose only goal is to protect their community.

+ Tech stars sought

Do you know an outstanding technology company or entrepreneur? The Tampa Bay Technology Forum seeks nominees for its 3rd Annual Industry Achievement Awards Gala. Sept. 26 is the deadline to submit a nominee for consideration.

Award categories include Innovation of the Year, Entrepreneurial Leader of the Year, Technology Professional Leader of the Year, Emerging Technology Company of the Year, Quantum Leap Technology and Community Outreach. The event will be Nov. 9 at the Marriott Waterside Hotel, Tampa. Nomination forms and more information are available at www.tbtf.org.

+ Kudos, One to One

One to One Gulfcoast, a Venice-based company that uses data software to assist non-profit agencies and schools seeking to improve mail-order fundraising programs, recently won two 2006 Gold Awards from Fund Raising Success Magazine. The work was for projects on behalf of the Out-of-Door Academy in Sarasota.

One to One was a finalist for the Review's 2005 Technology Innovation Award.

+ Tampa port attracts firm

River Consulting, one of the nation's top international design firms, recently opened a port and maritime office in Tampa, home to Florida's largest port which handles about 50 tons of cargo a year.

The new office will focus on management, consulting and engineering services for the port, maritime, terminal, cruise and material handling industries - from facility planning and design, to procurement and construction management.

Port expert John Bolles will serve as vice president and general manager of the Tampa location. He's joined by Gary Schneider and Mike McFadden. River Consulting has five other locations in New Orleans, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Houston and Salt Lake City.

The Port of Tampa is the largest economic engine in west central Florida, according to the Tampa Chamber of Commerce. There are about 250 businesses and 22,000 workers at the 5,000-acre port, which is the closest U.S. major port to the Panama Canal.

What's Ahead...

Sept. 20 - Want to know more about what to expect of the Tampa Bay area economy? Florida economist Hank Fishkind will be the guest speaker at the 5:30 p.m. dinner meeting of the Real Estate Investment Council Inc., Tampa Bay, at The University Club, 201 N Franklin St., One Tampa City Center, 38th Floor. For more information, visit www.reictampabay.org or call (813) 205-2138.

Sept. 21 - The Chamber of Southwest Florida will host a luncheon from 11:30 a.m. until 1:15 p.m. at International College on Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers. The guest speaker is Wayne Daltry, director of Lee County's Smart Growth Initiative. Cost is $30 for members and $40 for guests. To register, call 239-278-4001 or visit www.chamber-swflorida.com.

Sept. 22 - The Horizon Council, an economic development group in Lee County, hosts the Industry Appreciation Luncheon at 11:30 a.m. at Harborside Convention Center in downtown Fort Myers. For more information, contact the Horizon Council at 239-338-3161.

Oct. 27 - The Apex Award will be presented to a woman who has been nominated by her peers for outstanding achievement in career, community and leadership. The black-tie gala will be held at Harborside Events Center in Fort Myers and it begins at 6 p.m. To register, visit the Web site of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce at www.fortmyers.org.

Correction:

In the Sept. 8-14, 2006 issue, the Top 40 Construction Firms attributed a project to the wrong construction company. The SteamPlant Condominium project in Key West was a noteworthy project for DooleyMack Constructors.

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