Frank Bozikovich's never-quit strategy is a lesson in commercial real estate persistence.
Several years ago, South St. Petersburg wasn’t getting much positive attention.
“South St. Pete is a forgotten gem that over the years was clouded with bad press — unjustified bad press,” says Frank Bozikovich, an agent for Commercial Partners Realty based in St. Petersburg.
For one, there was a perception that crime was an issue. But Gary Jones, economic development officer for the City of St. Petersburg and liaison to implement the Skyway Marina District plan for the city, says that was inaccurate. “We found crime was lower than many other areas of St. Pete,” he says.
The area had also lost some big box stores. Possible tenants were reluctant to commit. Brand-name retailers would need a lot of convincing before they would consider property in South St. Pete.
Bozikovich’s perception, meanwhile, was the opposite — believing the area had untapped potential. “I thought there would be opportunity there for redevelopment,” he says. He analyzed the area’s demographics and felt they were as strong in South St. Pete as they were in the city’s central business district. He analyzed the outflow of dollars per year that were going out of that demographic area and being spent in other parts of St. Pete. He also had conversations with residents who talked about their desire for things like sit-down restaurants in the area. “It was clear to me that the dollars were there,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m just going to give it a shot.' “I started small and slow.”
“I didn’t lose sight of what I was hoping to achieve in the district. I had a vision. At first I was the only one to believe in it. Then other people began to see it and share it.” — Frank Bozikovich, agent, Commercial Partners Realty
After years of working in the area, Bozikovich’s persistence has begun to pay off. He's helped bring in about $700 million to $750 million in potential investments, for starters. Those commitments have been like dominoes, driving more investment and interest. His list of commercial real estate deals in the area is lengthening, including a host of repurposed buildings, and he says people will start to see more visible progress in 2020, including hundreds of new apartment units.
“Anyone who knows a little bit about real estate knows that’s a big driver for other kind of investments that come along with that,” Bozikovich says, including restaurants and service-based businesses.
While momentum is building in the area now, throughout the process, Bozikovich kept his eyes trained on the potential he saw in South St. Petersburg, even when it was harder to see. It started, he says, with a deal here and a deal there. “I didn’t lose sight of what I was hoping to achieve in the district,” he says. “I had a vision. At first I was the only one to believe in it. Then other people began to see it and share it.”
Bozikovic, 75, has an engineering degree and an MBA and was previously in a host of other fields, including technology consulting and retail, with a company that grew to nine locations. He got into commercial real estate in 2000.
To be successful in the field, he learned to tap into one of his skills — he could examine the attributes of an area and find and create opportunities that would materialize through development. “I started to be well liked and respected by developers of all kinds,” he says. “If I brought them a piece of dirt, they were less inclined to say, ‘What is this?’ They would quickly realize the potential of what I was doing.”
Bozikovich also found he likes working on commercial real estate deals in areas not as immediately popular — and in places that aren’t at the top of every tenant’s list. “I find it more interesting from a challenge point of view to create something out of nothing than to just go compete on the main drag and try to find a vacancy somewhere and try to bring in a tenant,” he says.
He didn’t rely on overnight success in South St. Pete, far from it. While he was working on the area, he says he had to keep earning a living, so he worked on deals in other parts of the Tampa Bay area. “Clearly, people who know me know I’m very persistent and very patient,” he says.
Early on in his efforts with South St. Pete, Bozikovich tried to convince investors and tenants to look at the area — without much luck. “I was getting, ‘That market’s not for us,’ but I kept arguing with them, ‘Look at the demographics.’”
Then the city started working on a master plan for the area. Jones says they solicited community input and determined the No. 1 goal was to bring opportunities for people to live in the area along with more retail and restaurants.
The creation of the Skyway Marina District came out of the process, which began in 2013. The district is on 34th Street South from 30th Avenue South to 54th Avenue South. Part of the strategy behind the district is to market the area and publicize its assets. For five years, Bozikovich served on its board of directors. The district helped legitimize the corridor, he says.
The city made physical improvements, including delineating the area with signage and adding pedestrian lighting. “A lot of this is a branding exercise to brand the area,” Jones says. “We’re really trying to get out the word that it’s a good market. We’ve had developers take notice. A lot more developers are taking notice than five years ago even.”
The city also committed to giving the first large mixed-use development $1 million in incentives. “That helped because there was a lot of perceived risk and uncertainty,” Bozikovich says. “I was able to count on the support of the city. That helps when you bring in an investor and can sit down with the city.”
To ink more deals, Bozikovich took a labor-intensive approach. First, he identified an opportunity. Then he knocked on doors and talked to property owners, telling them he thought there was a higher and better use for their property. “Once I got their confidence, I would then seek out users that I envisioned would fit well in terms of the mix of what was needed in the area and bring them over,” he says.
Bozikovich made progress, but his work has taken years. “It was a big challenge,” he says. “I had to constantly fight with rejection from all parts and try to bring facts to the table to counter their arguments and get them motivated enough and see the dream.”
Turn the Corner
Bozikovich’s deals in the area include a mixed-use apartment and retail project by Phillips Development, the sale of a former bank site that will be redeveloped into an automatic tunnel car wash, the sale of a former Kmart that will be developed into apartments and the leasing of the Aldi shopping center.
While not all of the roughly $750 million in investments have materialized yet, in 2020 Bozikovich says the corridor will see 900 new residential apartments. “Investments take time to come out of the ground,” he says. “The commitment of investors in that area is significant now.”
A visible sign of forward momentum is a former hotel being demolished to make way for over 200 apartment units. There’s also an older apartment complex that will be replaced with 65 apartment units. “The perception of what was there before is going to be totally transformed, and usually when that happens, that’s when you start seeing retailers taking notice,” he says.
To usher in more progress in the district, the city will continue to work with Bozikovich. “There are sites in the district we’re trying to develop, and Frank is always top on my Rolodex to talk about those properties,” Jones says. “Frank is very tenacious and very persistent.”
Now Bozikovich wants to focus some of his time on another part of St. Petersburg where he sees opportunity — a stretch of 34th Street north of the district that starts on 3rd Avenue South and goes to 22nd Avenue North. He’s not abandoning the Skyway Marina District, though. “I’m going to continue fulfilling the potential in the Skyway Marina District,” he says. “Clearly, we’ve turned the corner already. You’ll be able to see it for yourself in 2020. All that activity is going to happen.”