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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 25, 2004 18 years ago

Making the Big Pitch

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St. Petersburg-based The Beckett Whitney Group made a bid to buy the Bradenton City Centre for redevelopment as a high-profile retail and condominium project.

Making the Big Pitch

St. Petersburg-based The Beckett Whitney Group made a bid to buy the Bradenton City Centre for redevelopment as a high-profile retail and condominium project.

By Sean Roth

Real Estate Editor

Does city government really need waterfront views? Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston answered with an emphatic no during his reelection campaign last year, and he suggested the city sell City Centre - home to city government, an auditorium and police department - and move to cheaper land.

Blake Thompson, co-chairman of acquisitions for the St. Petersburg-based developer The Beckett Whitney Group LLC, says the mayor had a wonderful idea, and he knows just the company to take the 6-acre parcel off the city's hands: his own.

Thompson's proposal is not new. According to Bill Theroux, executive director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority (DDA), since Poston's comments, his organization has received a call a month from developers interested in redeveloping the site. What is different about Thompson's offer is that he put it in writing and agreed up front to pay appraised value.

City Centre, at 101 Old Main St., is attractive to developers for obvious reasons. The large piece of land is located at the end of Bradenton's historic Main Street and runs along the Manatee River. The site, at almost the exact center of Manatee County, is just west of the Sandpile property, a 26-acre parcel on which some of the area's big name real estate companies are planning multiple retail and residential projects.

In a commitment letter and sent to Theroux, Thompson promises to back up Beckett Whitney's financial capacity within five business days of a draft contract with the city. Further, he says the company agrees to pay the appraised value, determined by the difference between an appraisal put together by the city and a Beckett Whitney-selected appraiser. Following a signed contract, Beckett Whitney would produce site plans along with proposed elevations within 14 days.

Where would the city go? There wouldn't be a rush. After the contract is signed, according to the letter, Beckett Whitney would lease the land to the city for as long as the city wants.

However, a letter of intent is not legally binding, and the letter, sent at the end of the May, has not been submitted to the mayor or city council for comment or approval.

"(Selling the City Centre) is something I was talking about as far back as when I was the editor of the Herald," says Poston, who hasn't seen the letter. "This is an idea I think we need to seriously think about. There needs to be lots of public input. I think the city should take a hard look at 14th Street and what putting city hall there would do to drive redevelopment. Taking out some of those no-tell motels. And this may be the most reasonable time to buy ... especially since Tamiami Trail has been declared a scenic highway. There might be federal money for the city's development."

Poston receives calls weekly from potential developers as far away as San Antonio, Texas, but he says he has not received anything in writing.

"Nor have we asked for anything at this point," Poston says. "We haven't done an RFP (request for proposal) yet." He estimates that any activity on the site is probably at least three years away. Still, he says that if the city decided to sell the property it would be one of the most important development opportunities in the area.

When asked about the Beckett Whitney offer, Theroux took a pessimistic view of its chances. "We will certainly entertain any real proposals," he says, "but where is the city going to find the land for its existing services? The existing City Centre is six acres. Where is the city going to find that much land? The city is likely going to have to break up (the city hall, police and auditorium functions) into three different buildings. The city is not going to take on any additional debt to accommodate free enterprise. It is one thing to say they are willing to pay for the site, but no one has come back with a plan that will cover the purchase price."

Any potential suitor would also have to deal with a long public approval process, Theroux says. "As a practical matter, the city has to go through a lengthy public notification process," he says. "A developer would have to realize that even if we sign a contract today, construction would probably be two years away. Working with the city is a convoluted protracted enterprise. I know the city council would only go for it if it had the appropriate density. This is definitely not a done deal."

Thompson, 23, who also openly acknowledges the deal is a long shot, says Beckett Whitney is the company to make the project.

"I'm too young to be doing (development) for the numbers," he says. "I like to do projects like the (historic) Snell Arcade, upper-end projects that are really high-quality products and that are not going to fade so quickly. I look at development like I'm going to pick a wife. I want something that will be around for the rest of my life. We try to build in characteristics to make them long lasting. It is so expensive. We could much more easily put up 80 cookie-cutter townhomes, but we don't want that. We have a hard time convincing banks that quick and easy is not the way to go. They look at just the numbers, and cheap and quick looks a lot better (at that stage.)"

For Thompson, development is an early second career. Before he graduated cum laude from Florida State University with a degree in political science, Thompson started a stock investment club with seven college and family friends. Timing wasn't good. The company was founded in the stock market's sky-high days of 1999. Luckily, Thompson closed up shop before the late 2000 stock collapse, but even so the venture was not a huge money gainer.

"I think that is where I learned a lot of what it takes to run a business," he says. "It was in-between and besides school. I learned you have to put in sweat equity to see any type of return and also that you can't get blood from a turnip. I was brought up in family that no matter how much money they had, they did 10 times the work of any of their peers."

Thompson also obtained a Masters of Arts in First Amendment law and Jurisprudence. He went on to teach classes in the Humanities Department at Florida State, and he is now pursuing a law degree from Stetson University College of Law.

Meanwhile Peter Fishbeck, the now 63-year-old development co-chairman of Beckett Whitney, was weathering the sometimes inhospitable real estate development industry. He founded Office Enterprise Inc. in the mid-'80s and took the development company through the late '80s real estate market collapse as a single-family home builder and real estate broker.

Around 1990, Fishbeck relocated the company to St. Petersburg and converted it into more of a commercial and multifamily developer.

"I first met him when my girlfriend was looking at one of his properties- it was a condo conversion," Thompson says. "I went with her because he had a great reputation in town, and I wanted to see the quality of his work. I have never been so impressed with a builder."

Although Thompson's girlfriend bought a house instead, the meeting proved fortuitous. A few weeks later, Thompson found an old dilapidated doctors' office on Beach Drive in St. Petersburg, which he wanted to redevelop as two upscale townhomes. "I actually called him (Fishbeck) up and said, 'Can I meet with you?' " says Thompson. "After we talked, we got in a car and checked out the site. He said, 'If you can see what you think you can see on this property then you are one in a million.' He said he saw it too."

Fishbeck and Thompson decided to co-develop the project, which is now being called The Whitney Townhomes. In 2001, Thompson, with financial backing from family members and friends, bought out the other secondary equity partners and became Fishbeck's equal partner in the company, which was renamed Beckett Whitney. Office Enterprise Inc. became a subsidiary of the Beckett Whitney.

The relationship has allowed both men to develop a unique business dichotomy.

"He (Fishbeck) is brilliant at 63," Thompson says, "and he will forget more than I will ever learn. We have a different educational level. In December, I will have three post secondary degrees; he left NYU for electrical contracting. With me working 80 hours a week, I allow him to go back to working 40 hours a week. It is kind of a hodge podge, but it makes for a damn good team. He is my mentor and is cognizant of my abilities."

The two partners are now busy working on three projects: The Whitney Townhomes, renovation and condominiumization of the 1926 Snell Arcade in St. Petersburg and the company's first Bradenton venture called The Beckett Building.

Thompson initially looked at the historic Palmer and Hardin buildings on Main Street in Bradenton. "Bradenton feels very much like St. Petersburg," Thompson says. "There is still a lot of room to revitalize downtown. But downtown Bradenton is missing out on St. Petersburg's (waterfront) places to eat."

Beckett Whitney purchased the former 20,000-square-foot Commerce building in the downtown core at 529 13th St. W. "It was built in 1922," says Thompson. "We are planning to do renovations to bring it back to its original look. We are also planning to clean up the bottom floor to make it more pedestrian friendly. We will probably relocate a snack shop or a pizza place there."

Office Enterprises Inc. will handle management of the second floor of the building, which will be made up of small office suites that share common utilities, a receptionist and a phone number. The building's third floor will have five office units.

"We definitely want to establish a presence in Bradenton," Thompson says.

As for his initial development plan for City Centre, Thompson presents more of a conceptual plan. "We will probably utilize the existing two-story structure," he says. "This would not be something abrasive. It would be a Mediterranean design, which would fit in within the neighborhood.

"We would have several floors of condominiums. On the bottom levels we would likely have 20,000 to 40,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space. Downtown needs parking now; we would build a parking garage that would fit in with the building. If we are given the opportunity we are going to work hand-in-hand with the administration to give them what they would like."

Ultimately, Thompson is hopeful the city will put out a request for qualifications for acquiring and developing City Centre.

"We know we have the best qualifications to do this project," he says. "It will probably cost us about $100,000 in man hours' time and architecture costs to bring our expertise to the site and the contract. We just want the chance to negotiate with the city. We are 100% able and committed to developing what the city wants on the property. We would consider using it as our corporate headquarters. I am seriously considering bringing myself and our whole workforce down there."

Letter of Intent

May 31,2004

Bill Theroux

c/o City Clerk

Downtown Development Committee

City Hall

City of Bradenton, Florida

Re: Letter of Intent/or City Hall/Police Department Building and Parking Lot

Dear Mr. Downtown Development Chairman & Mr. City Clerk:

Please allow this to serve as a Letter of Intent on behalf of Beckett Whitney (BW). BW proposes that a contract be drafted for the sale of the City of Bradenton's City Hall/police facilities, and adjoining parking lot.

City agrees to draft a contract acceptable to the City Council and the mayor for the sale of said premises. Upon offering the property to BW, including the terms below, BW agrees to disclose its financial capacity within 5 business days in the form of tax returns for its development companies, and pertinent individuals, past and current ventures, and its business plan

BW agrees to pay City full MIA appraisal value, to be determined by a city-selected appraiser and a BW-selected appraiser (If the values are less than 14% disparate, the difference shall be divided in half). The contract will not be subject to any financial contingencies or financing options.

After a contract is signed, a price must be determined via the format noted in the previous paragraph. This must be completed within 30 days.

After this determination BW has 14 business days to propose to the City Council, the mayor, and the Downtown Development Committee its plans for the site and to provide proposed elevations of the site. Within three days of approvals by the council, BW will place an escrow amount to be determined after the appraisal numbers have been agreed upon by both parties.

BW will close of the property within 90 days of the City Council's approval of the sale. From closing, BW agrees to lease the property to City for a period of time to be determined by city, for a reasonable amount for said space and terms.

I have been excited and energized by the DDA in Bradenton. As buyers of the Commerce Building, I am looking forward to enjoying the growth and revitalization of downtown. If you would like BW to bring a Mediterranean masterpiece to heart of downtown, we would be glad to do so.

With appreciation for your time and consideration, I am,

Sincerely,

Blake Thompson

Acquisitions Chairman

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