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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Dec. 8, 2006 13 years ago

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Coffee Talk: Horizon Mortgage Co. president N. J. Olivieri spent most of his working days in the month leading up to Thanksgiving in a Sarasota courtroom, intently involved in the lengthy and complicated trial between various partners who built the Ritz-Carlton hotel in downtown Sarasota. And while a jury ultimately awarded Olivieri $1.85 million, the trial might as well have been a root canal. Cancel the call to the coroner: Pineapple Square is not dead. Tampa-area politicos and economic development officials were in full chest-thumping mode this week, claiming another victory in the ongoing effort to bring cutting-edge research and technology to the Sunshine State. The latest entry is SRI International, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based research firm that plans to open a marine science research facility in St. Petersburg.American Banker, the leading banking industry trade publication in the U.S., feted Orion Bancorp's Jerry Williams at a gala at the Pierre Hotel in New York City on Nov. 30.There weren't any surprises in the inaugural report on the ups and downs of the real estate market put together by the University of Florida's Center for Real Estate Studies.Ed Morton, the former chief executive officer of not-for-profit NCH Health Care System in Naples, lashed out at for-profit hospitals during an academic lecture at Florida Gulf Coast University recently.

Coffee Talk

+ Courting a victory takes time

Horizon Mortgage Co. president N. J. Olivieri spent most of his working days in the month leading up to Thanksgiving in a Sarasota courtroom, intently involved in the lengthy and complicated trial between various partners who built the Ritz-Carlton hotel in downtown Sarasota.

And while a jury ultimately awarded Olivieri $1.85 million, the trial might as well have been a root canal. "I have never been in a courtroom before, and God-willing, I never will again," Olivieri tells Coffee Talk. "It was mentally draining."

Olivieri and Horizon attorneys argued that the three groups behind the initial plans to build the hotel -Kevin Daves of Core Development, Dan and C. Robert Buford of SLAB LLC and home builder Taylor Woodrow - had not paid real estate commissions over the land purchases and other parts of the deal. While the lawsuit initially was Sarasota-based Horizon vs. Taylor Woodrow, a large part of the trial focused on periphery and counter suits filed by others, such as the case between the Bufords and Daves, one-time partners in the project.

Olivieri testified in the case about his experience setting up deals and meetings between Taylor Woodrow officials and Daves' group and later, between Taylor Woodrow and the Bufords' group. Olivieri was also cross-examined by attorneys looking to poke holes in Horizon's claims.

That part, says Olivieri, was probably the most painful of the whole process, as the lawyers dissected just about every deal he had ever worked on that was even remotely connected to the case. "Stupid stuff," is what Olivieri called it.

Despite the painstaking court process, Olivieri is obviously pleased with the outcome, although the $1.85 million award, which includes interest, could be appealed; a meeting with the judge on that issue is scheduled for next month.

But with his satisfaction comes little that he could knowingly change. "I don't know what I could have done differently," says Olivieri, "besides picking a client that actually would have paid his fee at closing time."

Get the Fat Lady off the stage

Cancel the call to the coroner: Pineapple Square is not dead. 

But the head of the ambitious project that is primed to reinvigorate downtown Sarasota's retail sector says he spends more time convincing people the project is on stable financial ground and moving forward as planned than anything else lately.

"I'm constantly fighting this notion that we are dead or dying," says John Simon, CEO of Pineapple Square Properties, the developer behind the project. The $200 million project is planned as about 275 residences and condos, about 130,000 square feet of shops and restaurants and 1,000-plus parking spaces, about half of which will be open to the public.

Part of the negative swirl is to be expected, as builders and developers up and down the Gulf Coast are dealing with the impact of the residential housing slump and what it means to their perspective projects. Another avenue of negativism comes from other media publications Simon says have distorted and misrepresented some facts and key points about the much-discussed project, mostly just south of Main Street.

And while Coffee Talk can be as skeptical as the next guy, Simon has some points. For example, the Sarasota Planning Board unanimously approved the project last month after an arduous six-month process, where every aspect and angle of the project was covered "right down to the number of trash cans and the number of trash compactors," Simon says.

The city commission is scheduled to vote on the project Dec. 11, and while unanimous planning board decisions aren't a guarantee of how commissioners will vote, Simon is optimistic it will pass. 

Another point: The residential side is selling strong. The sales force has 40 reservations ready to go to contract next month, says Simon, and there continues to be strong interest in the project.

Monica Waterman, a Michael Saunders & Co. agent supervising the sales, says one trump card has been the variety of available floor plans: There are 38 types of plans in what's projected to be City Place Tower, with few repeats. That creates selling points for uniqueness and resale value, Waterman says.  

Simon says there is more good news on the retail side. By Christmas, he expects to announce three agreements with well-known retailers for the first phase of the project, on Lemon Avenue. As in past interviews, he declined to name names, but Brooks Brothers has been one of the rumored retailers.

Simon recently wrote about these developments and other news in a letter written exclusively for buyers of the residences. Construction is still scheduled to begin next year, he says.

- Mark Gordon

+ Business and technological giant coming to town

Tampa-area politicos and economic development officials were in full chest-thumping mode this week, claiming another victory in the ongoing effort to bring cutting-edge research and technology to the Sunshine State. The latest entry is SRI International, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based research firm that plans to open a marine science research facility in St. Petersburg.

The impact, officials say, is expected to be big: $170-million plus in economic benefit; a new 30,000-square-foot facility near the Port of St. Petersburg; and 100 new jobs over five years and 200 over 10 years.

Not surprisingly, the aforementioned politicians and economic officials fell over themselves trying to take credit for SRI's arrival. The Tampa Bay Partnership, Pinellas County commissioners, University of South Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker were all mentioned in various releases and statements regarding the forthcoming facility.

So what is SRI?

The company, a nonprofit venture formed in 1946 as the Stanford Research Institute, had revenues of $400 million in 2005, including $115 million from its for-profit subsidiary, the Princeton, N.J.-based Sarnoff Corp., a research and technology firm. And while the focus of the St. Petersburg location will be on marine biology, the company has made some significant contributions to the business and entrepreneurial world. Its more well-known inventions include the computer mouse and the technology behind High Definition TV. Other facts:

• Walt Disney hired the company to analyze locations for a new theme park in California; the company recommended Anaheim, which Disney selected in 1955;

• In creating the first-ever long range planning and market analysis tools, SRI technicians created the term "stakeholder" in 1963, defining those who have a critical interest in a business or enterprise;

• In the 1980s, it created VALS, its trademarked Values and Lifestyles program, a market research tool used by hundreds of advertising agencies and marketing firms;

• It's board includes Henry Kressel, a partner with venture capital firm Warburg Pincus, and Richard Brewer, a managing partner with Crest Asset Management, a biotechnology investment firm.

+ Banker feted in New York

American Banker, the leading banking industry trade publication in the U.S., feted Orion Bancorp's Jerry Williams at a gala at the Pierre Hotel in New York City on Nov. 30.

Dubbed "The Performer" by American Banker, Williams was one of three bankers to win the coveted Community Banker of the Year award. Williams is chairman, chief executive officer and president of the privately held Naples-based bank.

The publication awarded Williams the honor for Orion's outperforming in one of the nation's most competitive markets. The bank's assets have more than doubled in the past two years to $2.4 billion, its earnings for the first nine months of the year were up 41% and its return on equity was 32%.

And for all those salivating investment bankers in New York City, Williams tells American Banker he has no plans to sell the bank or take it public.

+ The Ivory Tower weighs in

There weren't any surprises in the inaugural report on the ups and downs of the real estate market put together by the University of Florida's Center for Real Estate Studies. The survey will be done quarterly in the future, the school says. 

A group of industry executives, market research economists, real estate scholars and other industry experts say spiraling insurance rates were their biggest concern, followed by the softening housing market. Again, no surprise. 

Still, Coffee Talk appreciates the optimism of the center's director, Wayne Archer. While many of the Gulf Coast's Realtors, homebuilders and their brethren might disagree, Archer says the housing market in Florida isn't a bubble, so they'll be no bursting. He cites strong population trends and general industry cycles as two positive trends. "Unlike tech stocks," Archer says, "housing has a use, which means it can't just evaporate."

+ Public vs. private: A healthy debate

Ed Morton, the former chief executive officer of not-for-profit NCH Health Care System in Naples, lashed out at for-profit hospitals during an academic lecture at Florida Gulf Coast University recently.

Calling himself a "provocateur," Morton told a gathering of executives at a lecture sponsored by Florida Gulf Coast University's Lutgert College of Business in Fort Myers that for-profit hospitals can't successfully care for all citizens because their first allegiance is to shareholders, not to the community they serve.

"We can't have cherry-picking in healthcare," Morton declared. "No one competes for the poor." Morton is now a shareholder of Wasmer, Schroeder & Co., a Naples-based money manager that specializes in bonds.

William Schoen, the chairman of Naples-based for-profit Health Management Associates, was quick to rebut Morton during the lecture. Sitting on the edge of his seat on the panel, Schoen argued that HMA had acquired 60 nonprofit hospitals that couldn't manage their own finances and successfully turned them around.

What's more, HMA pays 40% taxes on its profits to federal and state government while still providing federally mandated charity care. He called Morton's accusations "tongue-in-cheek."

+ Internet buyers beware data thieves

More than a few retailers, both Gulf Coast-based and nationwide, bragged about so-called Cyber Monday being a big boost, both for one-day sales and future Internet shopping. Shop.org, a retailer's information Web site, reported that 60 million people shopped from home or work that day, and overall, the National Retail Association projects that nearly 25% of U.S. shoppers will buy their holiday goods online this year.

Not to throw water on raging Internet sales, but Coffee Talk perked up after seeing the results of another survey, this one from Internet security firm nCircle. That report shows that nearly 60% of IT security professionals are "much more wary of on-line shopping transactions" than they were two years ago, blaming the rise in online thefts and other problems.

So be wary, amazon.com addicts.

+ Cancer screening replaces toaster

Forget the free toaster. Here's a novel way to bring new customers to your branch, Florida style: screen them for skin cancer.

The BankUnited branch in Bonita Springs is offering free skin-cancer screening, though the bank's announcement stresses it's for exposed body parts only. Skin specialists from Lee Cancer Care and Harris Dermatology will give existing and prospective customers the once-over.

It's not clear how many people will take up the offer, scheduled for Dec. 15. "We have not done it before," says BankUnited spokeswoman Melissa Gracey. "We're always trying new things."

Frequently, BankUnited branch managers will team up with their business customers to offer services such as flu shots or food tasting, Gracey says. It's up to each branch manager to determine how to partner with business customers in order to attract new customers.

"Our branch managers are totally empowered to get to know their neighbors," Gracey says. "They're very creative."

So you might be in a better mood to open a new bank account once you're told that skin blemish is really just a freckle.

What's ahead . . .

Dec. 12 - A business seminar sponsored by Star2Star Communication on how to use Internet phone systems for multiple work locations will be held at the Sarasota University Club, 1605 Main Street at 9 a.m. A continental breakfast will be served. For more information or to register, call (941) 684-3699 or go to http://www.star2star.com/event_register.html.

Dec. 14 - The Southwest Florida Chamber of Commerce will host a regional economic outlook conference at Harborside Event Center in downtown Fort Myers. Cost of the full-day event is $150. For tickets and more information, visit www.reo2006.com or call 239-278-4001.

Jan. 25 - The Southwest Florida Real Estate Outlook conference will feature Florida economist Hank Fishkind and other speakers who will discuss the commercial real estate market from 7 a.m. until noon at Harborside Event Center in downtown Fort Myers. The conference is sponsored by the CCIM commercial real estate organization. Cost is $50 for members; $60 for nonmembers. For more information, visit http://southwestfl.ccimnet.com or call Tim Becker at 239-390-1241.

Jan. 26 - The Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County's Economic Outlook 2007 will feature keynote speaker Marco Rubio, Florida House Speaker, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Michael's On East, 1212 S. East Ave., Sarasota. The event will include a panel discussion by local business leaders forecasting trends in local and global competitiveness. Çost is $65 per person and corporate tables are available. Register online at www.edcsarasotacounty.com, call (941) 309-1200, ext. 203 or e-mail [email protected].

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