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Business Observer Monday, Jul. 17, 2006 13 years ago

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Conservancy sides with Babcock: The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, a Naples-based conservation group that has tangled with developers, says the sale of Babcock Ranch to West Palm Beach developer Syd Kitson and Morgan Stanley should proceed.
by: Adam Hughes Staff Writer

Coffee Talk

+ Conservancy sides with Babcock

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, a Naples-based conservation group that has tangled with developers, says the sale of Babcock Ranch to West Palm Beach developer Syd Kitson and Morgan Stanley should proceed.

The Conservancy's name hasn't surfaced much in the debate about the future of Babcock Ranch, but it has been actively involved in land-development issues in Southwest Florida for years. A partnership between Morgan Stanley and Kitson has an option to buy the 91,000-acre ranch that straddles Charlotte and Lee counties for an undisclosed price. The state, together with Lee and Charlotte, has agreed to buy 74,000 acres of Babcock for about $350 million for environmental preservation.

But in a last-minute effort that could threaten the deal, the Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club has challenged Charlotte County's approval of the development, saying it promotes urban sprawl. That's pitting Sierra Club against other environmental groups, which fear the opportunity to protect a large chunk of the ranch might disappear if the sale doesn't go through.

Conservancy officials say they agree with Sierra's goals, but disagree on the methods. They say they hope to be able to force Kitson to reduce the density of his development once he files his application to develop the property.

+ New CFO named at Lifestyle Fitness

Geoffrey Dyer, chief executive officer of Lifestyle Family Fitness Inc. and a finalist for this year's Gulf Coast Business Review Entrepreneur of the Year, hired a new chief financial officer to help manage the St. Petersburg-based health club chain's growth.

Tim Merrick, who was CFO of Coast Dental, will be responsible for the financial operations of Lifestyle Family Fitness, one of the 25 fastest growing health club companies in the country with 29 locations in Florida and eight in Ohio. In 2005, chain revenue grew more than 50% to $55.32 million Dyer, a native Australian who started the company 24 years ago in Lakeland, says Merrick is a great number cruncher, while his own area of expertise is marketing.

Lifestyle Family Fitness has received two infusions of growth capital since 2000. Quantum Capital Partners put in more than $6 million in 2000 and joined two other local investment groups to come up with an additional $8 million two years ago.

Merrick, a University of South Florida graduate, was the controller of Celotex Corp. prior to Coast Dental.

+ Growing pains not

a problem for Opteum

When Robert DeCecco dashed out a quick e-mail to fellow mortgage industry veteran Greg Shumate two months ago it wasn't about the former selling his Aclarian Mortgage, which the two had talked about in the past. The e�mail was to brag.

DeCecco, owner of Aclarian, had just beaten out Shumate for rental space in the Center Pointe office building in downtown Sarasota and the e-mail was a friendly jab. But the note put the two executives back in touch, and 30-days later, Shumate's Opteum Financial Services, LLC acquired the two-office Sarasota-based Aclarian. The deal closed June 30 and DeCecco and Shumate, who runs the southeast office out of Atlanta for Paramus, N.J.-based Opteum, have spent the past week getting the word out.

The two businessmen first talked about doing an acquisition a year ago, but the time wasn't right. DeCecco was charting a growth pattern for the small mortgage brokerage to surpass the $1-billion mark principally through acquisitions and expansion. A year later, the timing was better.

Opteum is owned by Vero Beach-based REIT Opteum Inc. The deal offers DeCecco more capital, infrastructure and personnel. Opteum, which already had offices in Sarasota and Tampa, has a market cap of $210 million and a retail origination volume of $2.1 billion. That capital would take Aclarian where DeCecco felt it had to go, away from being a mortgage broker working with other lenders and into the role of mortgage banker, loaning residential borrowers its own capital. What's more, Opteum presented DeCecco with a similar entrepreneurial business culture without the fat and unnecessary structure of a big corporation.

"This is where I wanted the company to be when it grew up," DeCecco tells Coffee Talk. "But this way, I avoided all the growing pains [and] all the acquisition risk."

+ New study: Office space still a sellers' market

Demand may have fallen for office real estate this year, but it still offers the big advantage of a sellers market, according to new study by Sheriar Khorsandian, senior vice president and principal of investment services in the Tampa office of Grubb & Ellis Commercial Florida. Examining the office investment market in Tampa Bay, Khorsandian found that sales of office properties in the first quarter are down by half, from $300 million in the same period last year to $150 million.

Explaining the decline, Khorsandian says that while investors still have a lot of capital to spend on office investments, prices have been rising faster than the estimated value available from the property, known as the cap rate. Potential sellers are tending to have higher occupancy rates, which Khorsandian says is "limiting the potential returns of prospective buyers."

Looking ahead, Khorsandian worries that even greater increases in interest rates will further hurt sales.

+ Contradiction: Stop growth, hold down prices

Political polls are sometimes tough to read, but a recent poll of Collier County registered voters has Coffee Talk wondering what they're thinking.

Pollsters commissioned by the Collier Building Industry Association found that 48% of Collier voters want the county to develop stricter regulations to slow growth or pass laws to stop any further growth. Another 35% say the county should encourage growth, but manage it more carefully through controls.

Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of the respondents think the top priority for elected officials in Collier in the next two years should be slowing the increase in housing prices. That issue scored second highest behind reducing traffic congestion.

Coffee Talk's take: That's called having your cake and eating it too.

+ Florida Gulf Coast U. looking in Charlotte

Fort Myers-based Florida Gulf Coast University is looking for sites in Charlotte County to build a satellite campus, Coffee Talk hears.

The university is looking for 150 acres to eventually accommodate 10,000 students. FGCU President Bill Merwin has told Charlotte County business leaders they're going to get the chance to get "a second bite at the apple." Charlotte lost to Lee County to be the home of the state's 10th university in 1992. The deadline for submitting a site is Oct. 15 and the effort is coordinated by Robert Burns, senior executive director of FGCU-Charlotte.

In addition to the land, the university needs a $5 million gift from one or more private sources. That's a requirement to apply for state funding.

The state university is already in negotiations with Naples-based Stock Development to house a teacher-training facility on five acres at Murdock Village. The university is considering either leasing or buying the site from Stock.

+ Peterbrook Chocalatier expanding to Tampa Bay

One of Jacksonville's most well-known and fastest-growing private companies, Peterbrooke Chocolatier Inc., is offering six to eight franchises in the Tampa Bay area.

And the 23-year-old company, founded by entrepreneur Phyllis Lockwood Geiger - who named the business after her children, Peter and Brooke - recently sold out its franchises within two weeks of making them available in Orlando. The Tampa Bay area is the company's third franchise market.

The company has eight company-owned stores in Jacksonville and one in Winter Park. Geiger's son, Peter Behringer, now the company president, says: "We pride ourselves on being a forerunner in the gourmet movement."

The company is hosting a wine and chocolate tasting party at 4 p.m. July 20 at Cork & Olive, 1110 S. Dale Mabry Highway, to introduce Tampa business people to Peterbrooke chocolate.

+ Roy's to open next

to Fleming's in Sarasota

It was one of the worst-kept secrets in Sarasota real estate that part-owner Dr. Mark Kauffman and his Sarasota Commercial Management wanted to add another Outback-branded restaurant to the Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar building at 2001 Siesta Drive, fronting U.S. 41. Now it's a done deal.

The two-county market's first Roy's, a Hawaiian fusion restaurant that Outback is expanding in a joint venture with chef Roy Yamaguchi, is scheduled to open on a bottom floor in the building in November. Renovation started last month.

The Roy's announcement also filled the last spot for a building that has suffered from large vacancies for several years. In late April of '05, when Kauffman and two other undisclosed partners bought out one of the former owner's interests in the building, the 50,000-square-foot building only had two tenants: Flemings and the U.S. Social Security Administration. A week or two later, the building had grown by three additional tenants: Sarasota County, Chelsea Title Co. and a plastic surgeon.

+ The Fishers: Like father, like son with publicity

Last week, Coffee Talk reported on the doings of Sarasota entrepreneur Bill Fisher and his plans to bring Chinese cars to America. Fisher's entrepreneurial son, Robert Fisher, has been in the news lately, too.

The younger Fisher, who runs Sarasota sports-bike customization business Roaring Toyz, has been taking advantage of a lot of free publicity coming his way.

The company created two custom Kawasaki Ninja ZX14 motorcycles to promote what the manufacturer was touting as it's fastest production model ever. Those custom bikes have since shown up on the covers of dozens of motorcycle magazines worldwide and in all of its public presentations, Kawasaki has made a point of mentioning the Sarasota company.

Plus, Fisher's shop was filmed recently for an upcoming television show "Super Bikes!" to be aired on Fox's Speed TV channel.

The net effect is that the company is scheduled to move from a 4,000 square foot shop on 12th Street in Sarasota to another building almost double in size. The company says it has seen an increase in Web traffic, too.

+ You have to have guts, forget about sleep

More guts and less sleep. Those were the factors a trio of women in the Tampa Bay-area commercial real estate industry underestimated when giving up the comfort of a guaranteed paycheck for the risk of running their own business.

Linda Pearson, co-founder of Diaz Pearson & Associates; Jodi Wilkeson, president of WDA Design Group Inc.; and Nancy Phaneuf, president of NPR Development Inc., spoke at the July 11 meeting of Commercial Real Estate Women, Tampa Bay, about how they started their own businesses.

Phaneuf, a commercial developer who invests her own money, spoke with candor about her fears and, how some nights, sleep still eludes her as she worries about the viability of her projects.

She readily admits she doesn't quickly embrace change.

"It's that courage," Phaneuf says. "You have to find it. Everybody has to find it."

Phaneuf and Wilkeson were both reticent entrepreneurs. Phaneuf went out on her own after the broker she worked for closed his doors. Wilkeson started her own firm after refusing to sign a non-compete agreement when the owner of the firm she was working for planned to sell.

Pearson says the time just seemed right to start a land planning firm with colleague Richard Diaz, adding: "I think you come to a realization in your life that you have to make a choice and take the risks."

The women talked about learning how to write a business plan and how to read a balance sheet. They say it's important to be able to trust others that are more knowledgeable in those areas to help.

They say it took less startup capital than they'd expected, though they were prepared to forego a salary for months. It helped that they had clients who followed them.

And then there's that elusive intangible that nearly all entrepreneurs struggle with: The courage to take big financial risks.

Phaneuf, for example, says she doesn't have regrets, but perhaps she should have paid closer attention to all the money others made on deals she put together.

She tells of an investor who made about $1 million on three properties she found for him over four months. There were two obvious differences between the investor and Phaneuf, she says.

"He had a little more money in the bank," she says. "But the real difference is courage, and I didn't have the courage at the time."

+ Ersa Grae purchases 21-acre site in North Port

Back in April, Ali Ebrahimi, president of Houston-based developer Ersa Grae Corp., officially declared the market for high-rise development dead in Sarasota and Manatee counties for the near future. Now the developer behind the Plaza at Five Points in Sarasota is heading south. Ersa Grae recently purchased a 21-acre site at the corner of Toledo Blade and Price boulevards in North Port from the Frank Menke Organization for $6.1 million.

Ersa Grae's is planning a shopping center with 180,000 square feet of retail space for the site.

"We think that intersection has huge potential," Ebrahimi tells Coffee Talk, referring to other retail developments planned for the three other corners of the intersection by among others, Benderson Development Co. Inc. "The development concept plan has already been approved."

+ RE/MAX Gulfstream shooting for 280 agents

RE/MAX Gulfstream Realty is officially on a growth tear. After opening its fifth real estate office in mid-June and announcing earlier this month the brokerage would grow from about 180 to 250 associates by the end of the year, the company recently bought Erik Shumway's 30-agent RE/MAX Suncoast Realty in Sarasota.

Co-owner Ron Travis wants to grow the firm to be number one in residential sales in even more markets than it already is. It plans to do that by hiring a whopping number of new agents - despite the slowdown.

"We've been number one in residential sales in Manatee County since 1996," Travis tells Coffee Talk. "In that market, we outsell the next two agencies by two to one. Our focus is on creating more regional locations where agents can work, instead of one large location."

The opportunity offered by the acquisition for Shumway - aside from the payout, which was not disclosed - was the additional level of services offered to the 3-year-old company's agents. Shumway will remain manager of the Mound Street Sarasota office and will focus on commercial real estate.

As for Gulfstream's 280-agent growth projection for the end of the year, the two owners say that level of associates is what they can handle based on the service staff they have put in place. The company is adding agents at the pace of two a week, they say.

The residential slowdown will actually play into this recruitment effort, says Dave Coupland, who co-owns the firm with Travis. The majority of the new RE/MAX agents will come from smaller real estate firms that won't have the funds to buy the marketing or technology to compete against the larger firms.

"We really think this is a self fulfilling prophecy," Coupland says. "If we have more agents working, there will be more RE/MAX signs on the street leading to even more business."

Good Time to Buy

A recent survey of Florida homeowners by Orlando-based Attorneys' Title Insurance Fund found mixed views about whether this is a good time to buy a home and whether values will rise or fall. Sarasota homeowners were the most pessimistic about future home values, though somewhat surprisingly, more than half believe now is a good time to buy.

Do you think that now is a good time or a bad time to buy a house?

Good time Bad time Not sure

Tampa 42% 45% 13%

Sarasota 53% 31% 16%

Fort Myers-Naples 45% 45% 10%

Florida 42% 42% 16%

Over the next 12 months, what do you expect the value of homes in your community to do?

Significantly Increase Remain Decrease Significantly

increase a little the same a little decrease

Tampa 24% 37% 19% 16% 4%

Sarasota 10% 28% 23% 24% 15%

Fort Myers-Naples 15% 37% 21% 22% 5%

Florida 22% 36% 19% 18% 5%

+ Next week: Review's 2006 Class of 40 U 40

Next week's edition of the Gulf Coast Business Review will include the 2006 Class of 40 Under 40 - 40 men and women under the age 40 who are among the Gulf Coast's leading achievers.

This year's edition of the awards will include selections from Tampa Bay, Sarasota and Manatee and Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties.

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