- February 27, 2019
Talk to Craig Sher and Will Conroy for just a few minutes and it becomes clear that they value three things: Family, St. Petersburg and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
Family first. Sher, the former CEO and Executive Chairman of Sembler Co., one of the most recognized retail developers in the Southeastern U.S., is Conroy’s father-in-law. Both men describe their family as “tightly knit” and say they try to involve its members in their business dealings when possible.
St. Petersburg is not only the home base of Sher’s former employer, the city also is one of three where Conroy’s law firm — Johnson, Pope, Bokor, Ruppel & Burns — maintains an office. In all, Sher has been involved in real estate projects there for more than four decades.
Together, they also will participate in one of the most highly anticipated mixed-use developments in recent city history beginning next year.
“We have a tremendous love and appreciation for St. Petersburg,” Sher says. “It’s really a jewel in Florida and the United States.”
Their shared affection for Springsteen is evident in how many times the family has seen The Boss live — dozens — and in the name of the development and investment firm they jointly created in 2014.
Backstreets Capital LLC is an homage to a song on Springsteen’s famous 1975 album “Born to Run,” which made the New Jersey native a superstar. Sher and Conroy say they often try to use Springsteen song titles for limited liability companies they establish for projects, too.
Over the past five years, all three matters of import have blended seamlessly.
Thanks in part to an entrepreneurial culture at Johnson Pope, where he is an equity partner, Conroy’s real estate law practice exposed him to several development and investment opportunities. That’s where family — namely, Sher — came in.
“Will kinda coaxed me out of non-development mode,” Sher says. “He’s generally the deal generator of the two of us, and I focus on structure and financing, to an extent. And we’ve always done things together as a family.”
What started off as a small perpetuation of legacy — Sher’s own father-in-law, Irwin Miller, was an instrumental mentor to him — has grown to 18 real estate projects.
Not surprisingly, many are in St. Petersburg, including the 13-story, 74-unit Salvador apartments and the St. James Town Homes.
The company’s two most recent projects also have St. Petersburg addresses.
Last month, Backstreets Capital announced it planned to establish a permanent headquarters along Mirror Lake. The office, Sher’s first ever downtown, will be shared with other family members.
Sometime next year, Edge Central Development Partners, a group comprising J Square Developers, Tampa-based DDA Development and Backstreets Capital, plan to begin demolishing the former St. Petersburg Police Headquarters, a two-acre tract at 1300 First Ave. North.
In its place, Edge Central plans Orange Station at the Edge, an $80 million mix of 100,000 square feet of office space in a dedicated nine-story tower; 85 condominiums and workforce-targeted apartments; a 600-space parking garage, mostly available to the public; and 22,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space.
City officials say they selected Edge Central because its plan met several critical city needs, including affordable housing. Orange Station’s offices, too, will be the first to be built in downtown St. Petersburg in three decades.
The project, whose name is a nod to the Orange Belt Railway that helped establish St. Petersburg in the late 1800s, is slated for completion from a Place Architecture design in 2023.
The police headquarters, meanwhile, moved nearby into a new $79 million building in early 2019.
J Square Developers' Jay Miller says Backstreets Capital is an ideal partner — and not just because Sher is his brother-in-law.
“Both Craig and Will are seasoned real estate investors, they understand development so it’s easy to communicate with them,” he says. “They make quick decisions, too, and once we’re underway on something they’re not looking over my shoulder. That said, if there’s information or intelligence we need, they’re happy to share it.”
Conroy says that while family participation and the company’s geographical focus are important, they are less critical than the relationships that have been fostered and built.
“Yes, there’s a generational thing with us, and some geographic focus,” he says. “But really what’s critical is who we partner with and why. A lot of deals have fantastic (internal rates of return) on paper but we’ve passed on them.
“I’m very proud of the fact that without exception we’ve done multiple deals with the same people, and part of that is the fact that we’ve picked the right partners up front.”
Sher agrees, adding that the link between the family and the city resonates with each project Backstreets Capital takes on.
“We want to help build a city that our kids and grandchildren want to live in,” Sher says.
In that vein, by 2025 Conroy says he’d like to have done more projects with the same partner roster. He’d also like to do something that would contribute to the redevelopment of the city’s 85-acre Tropicana Field site.
“Implicit is that we want to build great projects and make some money and do right by the community,” he says.