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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Sunday, May 7, 2006 16 years ago

Coffee Talk

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A good morning to you: Contractors, plumbers and anyone else working on construction sites in Sarasota County might be in for a surprise with their morning coffee: a building inspector.Cleveland Clinic land in limbo: Now that the Cleveland Clinic has sold its Naples hospital to Health Management Associates, what is it going to do with land it owns in adjacent Lee County?Dogged effort: Last November, the Review reported land agent Bill Eshenbaugh's somewhat unusual approach to selling a 450-acre development site in rural Pasco County.Floridaboom: Pity Tallahassee. While it's 1.6% job growth rate over one year and 2.8% over five years is respectable for any state capital, it's pretty paltry when compared to just about every other Florida region.Community banks, thrifts disappoint: A flat yield curve and intense competition for commercial and industrial loans hurt community banks and thrifts during the first quarter of the year. Welcome, Sabal: It looks like Brian Hall and some other bankers in the area (see AmSouth, next item) didn't get the Ryan Beck & Co. memo.Unrestrained Exuberance: AmSouth Bank is about a year behind its Florida peers, but it plans to catch up fast.Hotels are the new condos: The aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Charley put a halt to new hotel developments in Southwest Florida.Law now fair?: The legal doctrine of joint and several liability, recently overturned by t
by: Adam Hughes Staff Writer

Coffee Talk

+ A good morning to you

Contractors, plumbers and anyone else working on construction sites in Sarasota County might be in for a surprise with their morning coffee: a building inspector.

The county is running a program where its inspectors are getting their assignments from a computer at home, leading to a jump-start on the day. Greg Yantorno, a deputy building official, tells Coffee Talk that so far, he's heard from a few builders and developers surprised to see an inspector at the eye-cracking 7 a.m. hour, as opposed to the normal 9 or 10 a.m.

The inspectors are getting out to the sites earlier because they don't have to go into the office first to get assignments and meet with the crews and bosses, a sometimes time-consuming process, Yantorno says. Five of the 33 county building inspectors are participating in the pilot program, which was launched last month. Nine more inspectors are expected to start the program in the next few weeks.

The inspectors are given laptop computers with a special software program. They can log on the day before and see where they have to be the next day, which can vary from North Port to Lakewood Ranch. Once at a site, the inspectors can enter information into the county system in the laptops and do other work, such as print inspection tickets. At the end of the day, an inspector can go home instead of returning to the county's building on Cattlemen Road in Sarasota, near Interstate 75.

The reason for the program is not to surprise developers. It's supposed to increase efficiency. With the time saved in the morning and afternoon, Yantorno says, an inspector can do, on average, three more inspections a day. That translates into roughly 100 extra inspections a day when the entire department is using the program.

+ Cleveland Clinic land in limbo

Now that the Cleveland Clinic has sold its Naples hospital to Health Management Associates, what is it going to do with land it owns in adjacent Lee County?

Lee County property records show the Cleveland Clinic Foundation owns about 40 acres near the intersection of Ben Hill Griffin Parkway and Alico Road, one of the hottest real estate locations in Southwest Florida. Its new neighbor is the Gulf Coast Town Center, a 1.7-million-square-foot mall with 120 shops in the final phases of construction.

Cleveland Clinic spokeswoman Eileen Sheil says the hospital considered building a family health center when it bought the land in 2003 for $12.5 million. "However, since the sale agreement with HMA, plans to move forward on that have halted at this point," she says. "We don't have plans to do anything with that land, but we're holding onto it for now."

Now may be a good time to sell, however. Looking at recent land sales in the area, the land could be worth more than four times what Cleveland Clinic paid for it.

+ Dogged effort

Last November, the Review reported land agent Bill Eshenbaugh's somewhat unusual approach to selling a 450-acre development site in rural Pasco County. Eshenbaugh, who calls himself the Dirt Dog, took prospective buyers on helicopter tours of the site.

The dog found his bone. Lakeside LCC sold the 855-unit Lakeside parcel on Hudson Avenue, a mile west of Hayes Road, to Pulte Homes for roughly $39.95 million. Next up for Eshenbaugh is selling 825 acres in Manatee County and a 500-unit condominium site in New Port Richey.

"I haven't decided if I will use the helicopter on [the Manatee County] piece as well," Eshenbaugh says. "It really shows clearly how close the land is to all the projects that are around it. Stuff you really can't see from your car."

+ Floridaboom

Pity Tallahassee. While it's 1.6% job growth rate over one year and 2.8% over five years is respectable for any state capital, it's pretty paltry when compared to just about every other Florida region.

Good thing other areas in the state don't take their cues from the Capitol gang. Otherwise, Inc. magazine would have to rewrite its annual Boomtown issue: The list, published in the May issue, was dominated by Florida, which placed 19 cities in the top 100 and seven in the top 25. Every major region of the Gulf Coast made the list, too. (Tallahassee's numbers were good enough to be ranked 137).

Using Bureau of Labor statistics, the magazine measured current-year employment growth, average annual job growth over the past three years and compared job growth in the first and second halves over the last 10 years.

INC.'S HOTTEST CITIES FOR ENTREPRENEURS

GULF COAST CITIES

JOB GROWTH

City Rank 1-Year 5-year Cape Coral-Fort Myers 3 4.9% 25.2%

Lakeland 38 2.6% 10.3%

Naples-Marco Island 8 4.8% 26.1%

Punta Gorda 22 4.2% 14%

Sarasota-Bradenton 20 4.6% 15.1%

Tampa-St. Petersburg 64 2.6% 8%

+ Community banks, thrifts disappoint

A flat yield curve and intense competition for commercial and industrial loans hurt community banks and thrifts during the first quarter of the year.

That's the conclusion of Jacqueline Reeves, a Florida-based financial institutions analyst at Ryan Beck & Co.

About half of the community banks and thrifts followed by Ryan Beck missed consensus earnings estimates put out by Reeves and other industry followers. Only 32% of regional banks tracked by Ryan Beck failed to meet profit expectations.

Loan growth among community banks rose a modest 3% during the first quarter, as increases in commercial loans and mortgages negated a decline in consumer credits. Overall, however, earnings per share dropped 4% and net income slid 2%.

At the savings institutions, loan growth was better than at the community banks, led by a 4% rise in mortgages. But the thrifts weren't as diligent in managing costs. Expenses were up 3% while fee income decreased 7%.

Credit quality, a concern throughout the entire banking industry, remained relatively high among the dozens of financial institutions that Ryan Beck keeps an eye on.

Reeves says the tighter gap between long-term and short-term interest rates will make it difficult for most banks and thrifts to generate the profits of the past few years. She thinks some banks might decide to give up the battle.

"With this operating environment potentially here to stay for some time," Reeves says, "we believe M&A activity is likely to accelerate in 2006."

+ Welcome, Sabal

It looks like Brian Hall and some other bankers in the area (see AmSouth, next item) didn't get the Ryan Beck & Co. memo. Or they are ignoring it and moving ahead anyway.

After five years as a senior lender for the Sarasota branch of SouthTrust Bank, Brian Hall is convinced he knows the local market, too. And he's betting that the going is going to stay good for a while.

Hall is president of Sabal Bank, the second recent community bank launch in Greater Sarasota. The other new start-up is Insignia Bank, with a board that includes advertising executive Tim Clarke and local attorney Sam Norton.

Hall says he's not afraid of opening up shop during a time when there is already a half-dozen successful community banks in the market competing for accounts, not to mention the presence of national behemoths like Wachovia and Bank of America. "Given the size and growth of this market," he says, "there is still a lot of opportunity."

The Sabal board is dotted with names likely familiar to Coffee Talk readers. It includes Ray Neff, former CEO of FCCI, Sarasota developer Sam Hamad and Charlene Heiser Wolff, co-founder of investment advisory firm Wood Asset Management Inc.

The initial Sabal office will be built about a mile off Interstate 75, near the Fruitville and Honore intersection. Hall tells Coffee talk the bank's focus will be in the commercial and consumer markets, as well as commercial real estate.

+ Unrestrained Exuberance

AmSouth Bank is about a year behind its Florida peers, but it plans to catch up fast. In October 2004, federal and Alabama regulators served AmSouth a cease and desist order on developing new branches because of problems related to the bank's obligation to detect and report suspicious activity under the Bank Secrecy Act.

A few weeks ago, the two groups lifted the stay, letting AmSouth back into the bank-building business. Odds are you're going to notice it's back in town: Bank spokesman Jerri Franz says the bank plans to open 54 branches in Florida this year, including a large number in the Gulf Coast.

Although not all of the locations had been finalized, Coffee Talk has learned that 23 branches will open in the market this year in Polk, Pasco, Hillsborough, Sarasota, Manatee and Collier counties.

+ Hotels are the new condos

The aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Charley put a halt to new hotel developments in Southwest Florida.

But that's changing, says D.T. Minich, executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. "I've been meeting with at least one developer a month," he says. Although occupancy rates in Lee County hotels have been flat, room rates have risen 7% annually in the last two years.

The outlook for May and June looks equally bright, especially for group meetings. What's more, the bureau's research shows a 20% increase in the number of people adding extra days of vacation before or after their meetings.

But there are storm clouds on the horizon. "August and September look dismal because of the H word," he says. The bureau will advertise in cities such as New York and Chicago that provide nonstop flights to Fort Myers to attract last-minute travelers during those months.

In an odd twist, Minich criticized New Orleans for holding its Mardi Gras celebration this year because media from the all over the world visited the city's damaged areas and reported little progress. "We saw a huge jump in hurricane inquiries after Mardi Gras," Minich grumbled.

+ Law now fair?

The legal doctrine of joint and several liability, recently overturned by the Florida Legislature and signed by Gov. Bush, is often painted as a lawyers vs. business issue. But not all lawyers oppose the change.

Lawyers for Civil Justice, a national coalition of defense trial lawyers and corporate counsel, welcomed the news that civil defendants in Florida will no longer be forced to pay more than their fair share of jury awards just because a co-defendant is unable to pay.

One Tampa Bay area lawyer, Matt Conigliaro, voiced his support for the repeal of joint and several liability on his blog, abstractappeal.com.

Conigliaro explains how the old law worked: The wealthiest defendant in a lawsuit could end up paying all the damages even if he was only partly responsible.

"That system was arguably unfair to defendants," Conigliaro writes, adding, "That led to situations where, say, two defendants are 90% and 10% responsible for an accident, and the second one still has to pay the plaintiff 100% of his or her damages."

Now when defendants are found responsible, liability is determined by percentage of fault.

"You are responsible to pay for the amount of damages you are responsible for having caused," he writes. "That has an awfully fair sound to it."

+ Conversion converted

Palmer Ranch isn't going all condo, at least not yet.

Sales of condominiums of the Saratoga Place on Palmer Ranch went so poorly that Parkland Management Corp. is marketing the 248-unit complex as rentals again.

The complex, originally named Mayfair Apartments, was purchased in October for $46.5 million, or $187,702 per apartment. It was the most expensive price on per unit basis ever paid for at Palmer Ranch.

Saratoga Place is currently 46% occupied, following new construction and the failed conversion. New tenants in the condominiums must give up their right of first refusal as a condition of renting the units.

+ A nice day's work

Arthur Allen, founder of Naples-based technology company ASG, says he could cash out of his business for $500 million.

Allen, who was interviewed by Fox News' Neil Cavuto at an ASG-sponsored tech gathering in Naples recently, estimated he could cash out for that sum if he took his firm public.

"That would make me think about it," Cavuto quipped.

Allen says remaining privately held keeps him from having to answer to shareholders and directors. "I just have to answer to my customers," he says.

ASG provides tech services to such blue-chip companies as American Express, General Electric and Merrill Lynch. It has more than 50 offices worldwide.

+ Pass a slice

Florida has an official flower, bird and song. Why not a pie?

The American Pie Council and Georgia-based Edwards gourmet desserts announced support for Floridians fighting to make key lime pie the official state pie.

There was some bickering by farmers who say the small limes are no longer commercially grown in Florida because of canker, while strawberries and pecans are grown in the Sunshine State.

The Florida Senate voted for the key lime pie bill, sponsored by Larcenia Bullard, a senator from Miami. And on May 3, the House approved it 106-14. Looks like the tangy yet sweet state pie becomes official July 1.

And apparently this isn't all for naught: When Vermont approved apple as its official pie, sales apparently increased dramatically.

Key lime pie makers rejoice.

+ Insuring an increase

Since 1980, the FDIC has capped the amount of insurance an individual can have on funds kept in a bank at $100,000. But what's a wealthy investor to do, what with the stock market still acting like a bear, inflation rising and the economy humming along?

For years, the answer has been to run from bank to bank with different accounts in each one. Now at least a dozen banks and financial institutions on the Gulf Coast are offering a new service that provides CD depositors with up to $25 million in FDIC Insurance. It's called CDARS (pronounced Cedars) and uses a network of banks to track and insure funds. No more multiple bank accounts and statements.

LandMark Bank in Sarasota is the latest to introduce CDARS. President and CEO Thomas Quale tells Coffee Talk several customers had been asking for the service.

+ Ray's not here...

...And Jeffrey P. Julien, chief financial officer at Raymond James Financial Inc., won't take a message.

Coffee Talk just loves salespeople looking for a little edge. Julien is less fond of them. At least he doesn't care for the ones who telephone him at the St. Petersburg financial services firm with what they think is a clever opening line.

Julien told a recent business gathering in Tampa that there is nobody named Raymond James employed at Raymond James. "That's one tip-off when I get these random phone calls and people say: 'I ran into Ray at a party. He told me to call you,'" Julien informed the crowd.

Let's review a little local corporate history for newcomers to our area - or smart-aleck sales folks.

The origins of Raymond James Financial date back to 1962 when the father of current Chairman Thomas A. James started Robert A. James Investment Inc. Bob James was a homebuilder who noticed a lot of retiree customers needed advice with their financial planning.

In 1964, Bob James bought out another local investment firm called Raymond & Associates. The two surnames were mashed together and Raymond James - the company, not the person - was born.

More than 40 years later, Ray is still not in the investment house on Carillon Parkway.

+ Interstate 75 project draws crowd

Several hundred people showed up when the Florida Department of Transportation called a meeting in Fort Myers recently to float the idea of a unique way to finance the widening of I-75 between Fort Myers and Naples.

In a first for Florida, the transportation department wants construction companies to finance the $469 million project and widen the road over three years. But the state will pay the contractor over a five-year period, so the builder will have to carry an extra two years' worth of costs.

Despite those hurdles, transportation department officials said 280 people showed up at their information meeting, representing companies from as far away as Spain.

+ Lawyer honored

The St. Petersburg Bar Association and the Gulf Coast Business Review honored the late Joseph H. Chambers with the 2006 Professionalism Award, which was presented to two of his sons, who are also lawyers, at the group's May 5 Law Day luncheon.

Chambers, who died last year, was a longtime Pinellas lawyer known for his generosity. One of his favorite causes was St. Petersburg's Resurrection House, a faith-based organization for education and workforce development.

His four adult children, Joey, Jeff, Lance and Danielle recently gave $50,000 to the Resurrection House for the construction of the Joseph H. Chambers Center. The new building will be used to teach middle and high school students about finances.

The award, co-sponsored by the association and the Review, is given annually to an attorney who exemplifies the Florida Bar's Creed of Professionalism, which emphasizes devotion to public service, honor, integrity and fair play.

Previous award recipients are John C. Wolfe, Oscar Blasingame, Pamela A.M. Campbell, Louie Adock Jr. and Jack Helinger.

+ Correction

A company in the story Market Interrupted in the April 28 Review was misidentified. The correct name of the company is Blake Whitney Thompson Co.

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