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Back from the brink

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  • | 3:28 p.m. February 3, 2017
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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Northwest Commerce Park had been vacant so long that it just seemed to blend into the Tampa landscape.

Commercial real estate brokers who took notice of it or happened upon the derelict property — sometimes by accident — regularly assumed that it was owned as storage by Tampa International Airport, its more prosperous neighbor to the south.

The park's four buildings sat derelict for more than seven years as a result, eroded by time and neglect. Instead of the businesses it was meant for, the forsaken park's only patrons were vagrants and graffiti artists, who left spent spray-paint cans as unwanted souvenirs.

The death knell for Northwest Commerce came during last decade's economic recession, when its few remaining tenants caved or weren't actively retained. By 2010, area real estate brokers officially declared the 167,200-square-foot property's single-story, low-ceilinged buildings functionally obsolete.

But now, an Illinois-based developer that specializes in problem properties and troubled assets plans to buy Northwest Commerce and “reactivate” it with a full-scale renovation.

“We're going to take a project that others don't seem to want and revamping it,” says Gerard Keating, head of the development firm acquiring Northwest Commerce Park.

“We find many people don't want to put the money, the blood, the sweat or the tears necessary into rehabilitating projects, but we do,” Keating adds. “When everyone else zigs, I like to zag.”

If all goes according to plan, Keating Resources' roughly $4 million rehabilitation of the 11-acre business park will be completed in July.

“The bones of these buildings are really good — they're concrete block,” says Rick Narkiewicz, a senior managing director with commercial real estate brokerage firm Newmark Grubb Knight Frank's Tampa office, which is marketing the property on behalf of Keating.

“And it's at the gateway to the city, at Veteran's Expressway and Hillsborough Avenue. Try to find a more trafficked spot.”

As part of the renovation, Keating plans to put on new roofs and dock doors, paint exteriors, restripe parking lots, add sprinklers and LED lighting, enhance security and upgrade the power supply and heating and air conditioning systems.

“They're taking the walls and the slabs and preserving them, and other than that, they're redoing everything,” says Bobby Sampson, a Newmark Grubb broker associate who is also marketing the space.

“It's essentially going to be a brand new warehouse project.”

The reconditioning of Northwest Commerce comes as industrial vacancy rate in the Tampa area has shrunk to historic lows, around 3%. And while new distribution space has been built in the Interstate 4 corridor for the likes of Rooms-To-Go, FedEx, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and others, very little smaller, Class B and “flex” product combining office and warehouse has been completed.

The plan also comes as so-called “infill development” of sites within existing cities and other areas is gaining traction, as the boundaries for greenfield development — especially in areas around Tampa — stretches ever further into Pasco and Polk counties.

“There's a major focus on infill and value-add product now, at this point in the cycle,” Sampson says. “Because you can only push out so far. That's why buildings in Pinellas County are being knocked down now.”

Narkiewicz says the lack of supply is another advantage.

“Marketwide, there's not a lick of developable land, and the barriers to entry in the airport submarket are extremely high, even though it's been the best performing submarket in Tampa Bay,” he says.
Even so, Northwest Commerce faces challenges.

Most notably, the buildings are antiquated, dating to the early 1970s, according to Hillsborough County property records. All four have ceiling heights of 17-foot clear, too — outdated by today's standard 24-foot or 28-foot clear heights industrial users typically desire.

“The buildings are what they are,” Narkiewicz says. “We can't change the ceiling heights, but this isn't bulk distribution product anyhow, so I'm not sure how relevant that is. When renovated, these buildings will appeal to the vast majority of the market of users out there.”

Keating's renovation could be helped along, though, by a Hillsborough County revitalization fund that could be used to pay for a percentage of the overall redevelopment.

Sampson and Narkiewicz says Keating has applied for the resources for the 5400 Southern Comfort Blvd. project but has not yet been approved.

Even without the financial help, Keating has considerable experience in Tampa and elsewhere turning around what were once considered to be failed assets.

Locally, the company in December 2015 acquired a vacant, four-building complex containing 320,000 square feet on Uceta Drive that had once been occupied by Tampa Cold Storage.

After ripping out old, ammonia-power refrigeration equipment, installing a new roof and sprinkler system and making other improvements, Keating sold the building to Coast to Coast Moving & Storage in
May 2016 for $2.87 million for the company's headquarters.

Today, the project is once again nearing full occupancy.

“It takes managing risk and vision, but we've learned how to do that,” Keating says of his redevelopments. “I'm confident Northwest Commerce will be 100% occupied by year end.”



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