Insightful Discussions
Sep 24, 2019

Commercial Real Estate Choices and Challenges

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Commercial real estate is a driving force in the Cape Fear region’s economy. Where are we today, and what challenges are we about to face in the future? We asked local business professionals for their take on the Wilmington market.

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How is the commercial real estate market in the Wilmington area different today than it was five years ago?

MARGARET GRAY: Five years ago, there was more commercial space and more commercial property available for development. Both facets have dwindled. Commercial space was limited when Hurricane Florence flooded many properties. Commercial property, raw land for development, continues to diminish as available properties with commercial zoning designations disappear.

PAUL LOUKAS: With an increase of outside investors and developers, our market has become more sophisticated, dynamic and more competitive over the last several years. There is more money and creativity now being invested into projects, both new development and existing buildings, to attract the best tenants. In order to justify this, tenants are expected to sign longer term leases at premium rates.  

Also, both Wilmington’s economy and employer base have further diversified over the last five years; this growth, along with the aforesaid outside investors, has allowed our commercial real estate market to expand and continue to mature.

ERNIE OLDS: Speaking from the design side, we seem to have hit full stride. In 2014, new project volume was more sporadic and generally smaller in scale while today and in the last year or so we have significantly more activity with larger projects and development across all sectors – hospitality, healthcare, education and commercial. Private work now represents approximately 70 percent of our projects, whereas in 2014 the public sector was more dominant. 

MARK TYLER: We should be proud of Wilmington’s positive story, as our local economy is performing well, largely due to population growth that has been outperforming the State of North Carolina and the national average. For most properties, this positive backdrop translates into strong occupancies and increasing rental rates, which typically means properties are worth more today than they were five years ago.

KEN DULL: It is a much more active market than five years ago, although you are beginning to see the impact of higher costs of construction, and higher prices on properties impacting decisions on new deals.

Where are you seeing the most interest geographically?

OLDS: Locally there are opportunities in most parts of our immediate region. I see lots of growth and interest in the neighborhood centers around Monkey Junction, Castle Hayne, and Porters Neck. Downtown seems to have gotten particularly hot, but we are discussing projects all over the coast. Our practice encompasses work in states from Delaware to Georgia so it’s an interesting view. Our hottest market geographically is the Carolinas, in sectors driven by growth in population. Here we see more new builds, as funding in both the public and private side is favorable. 

GRAY: Most interest generally occurs where water and sewer infrastructure are in place. Geographically speaking that places commercial development in Leland, Wilmington, and the Hampstead/Hwy 17 corridor areas.

DULL: All over our region honestly. The market is healthy in the greater Wilmington area.

TYLER: We’ve seen a lot of growth in Midtown, downtown Wilmington and the Military Cutoff corridor. Many areas in Wilmington are seeing growth, and there are lots of properties across the Cape Fear region with significant potential.

LOUKAS: Wilmington continues to receive the most interest, as it’s “ground zero” for being the economic, retail, and medical center for southeastern North Carolina. I don’t expect this trend to change, but obviously there are other areas that have experienced a significant rise in interest over the last few years. For example, with the growing number of rooftops in Leland, commercial demand in this submarket has increased remarkably since the recession. Also, after extending utilities and the opening of I-140, the Highway 421 corridor has seen a large uptick in industrial interest.

What types of commercial developments are gaining momentum (retail, office, industrial, etc.)?

TYLER: It seems like most all sectors are strong, including apartments, office, medical buildings, retail, etc. Multi-family real estate continues to expand, driven by low vacancy rates in recent years. Additionally, office space continues to be in high demand. Some investors have capitalized on the demand/supply gap by purchasing and upgrading mature office buildings to make them Class A spaces. 

As our region continues to grow, South State looks forward to seeing the ongoing evolution in the quality and attractiveness of developments and the services they offer to residents of the Wilmington region.

GRAY:  Industrial development continues to gain momentum. There has been a shortage of 15K to 25K available industrial facilities. And with development from design/permitting to construction and certificate of occupancy taking 18 – 24 months, the region still isn’t ahead of demand.

DULL: Multi-family continues to be successful as more people move to our area. There has been a big push in the live, work, play mixed use sector. What we are seeing now is what happened in Raleigh and Charlotte five years ago. 

LOUKAS: There are currently supply constraints for office and industrial space. As the economy has expanded, so has demand for both product types. Lease rates have lagged behind the rise in both land and construction costs, which has discouraged new development. Fortunately, rates have recently risen to a level to financially justify new projects. 

OLDS: There seems to be a healthy mix across commercial developments, but mixed use projects have gained some traction and we see public clients more willing to consider the private side input in financing and design. (See the recent RFPs from the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County.) After all, market capitalism is the driver that raises tax bases and puts people to work.

Is there a type of commercial real estate or part of the region that is lagging behind?

GRAY: Aside from industrial facilities lagging behind I would say commercial/mixed use public/private partnerships are lagging behind. More municipalities will be trending toward these partnerships to bridge the gap between budget limitations, construction costs, and state/federal program mandates, which predominately cost tax dollars.

DULL: There is a lot of pressure on retail space as this sector continues to evolve due to the internet.

OLDS: Communities with the strongest population increases are leading and doing so across the board. Development patterns are very tuned to the demographics. Retirees have differing expectations in quality and costs than younger families. In all areas retail development is more cautious. Technology has impacted the growth in branch banking, for example, but also made possible the discovery of niche services, unique eating and specialty retail experiences. Consumers want an “experience” whereever they spend money. 

LOUKAS: All major asset classes are faring well, but retail projects, and retailers themselves, are trying to find their identity in the age of e-commerce. Along the same lines, medical office space is in a similar predicament after the recent healthcare reform. While there will be some systematic growth in certain geographic areas, there is uncertainty about the direction this product type will take in the future. 

Speaking geographically, I think the Castle Hayne corridor, stretching up through Rocky Point, has been overlooked and is an area that is a logical place for future residential and commercial growth.  
Are commercial real estate prices on the rise, holding steady, or in flux?

DULL:  Prices seem to continue to be increasing at a comfortably steady rate. We are now just getting back to pre-downturn prices. 

LOUKAS: Pricing seems to have largely plateaued. This is a very general comment, as there are submarkets where land values and/or rents have just recently rebounded, and I expect to see some additional growth.  

From an investment sales perspective, cap rates have remained at all-time lows. Everyone has expected interest rates to rise for years now, with cap rates rising thereafter, but they haven’t. 

GRAY: Commercial real estate prices are trending up just based on supply and demand.

How are new builds doing versus existing space?

DULL: There is strong demand for new construction. This is being driven by the fact that now all pre-existing space is mostly leased or occupied since the down turn. The cost of new construction is rising and that is making the existing property values higher and allows those owners to raise rates.

LOUKAS: Other than apartments, whose fundamentals remain quite strong, there has only been limited commercial development. For the most part, these new projects, and the few redevelopments, have secured top of market rates and have stabilized quickly.  

OLDS: New construction and renovations are both strong for us. In prior years, building new was more of a risk but that seems to have waned. Existing spaces are not necessarily less costly, and they certainly have greater risk for the unknown condition. Older spaces can offer a certain look and feel that can support the image a business is seeking. Much older buildings (1960s and earlier) can be fraught with limitations in ceiling heights, accessibility, mechanical and electrical systems, not to mention all the structural and energy issues we design for today, so the client must have an appetite and desire for addressing those unique challenges. Developers of all project types understand new builds have a predictability that banks appreciate and a financial structure that can help make the project successful.

What challenges are facing commercial real estate in the Cape Fear region?

GRAY: Challenges facing commercial development vary based on the magnitude of the commercial development employee base. Larger commercial employers trend consideration and concerns toward incentives, taxes, and workforce development. Smaller commercial employees trend consideration and concern toward taxes, pay thresholds, and lease flexibility.

DULL: It depends on the sector. For multifamily it is cost of construction and keeping up with growth while factoring in affordable housing. For office and retail it is continuing job growth and good paying jobs. For industrial it is a lack of product.

TYLER: One thing South State Bank hears consistently is the cost of construction and availability of land and associated land-acquisition costs as a challenge to commercial real estate development. Additionally, a shortage of industrial space continues to be a challenge.

There are numerous existing and proposed road projects in New Hanover County, and all road projects tend to be a part of the commercial real estate discussion since they can impact site selection and be critical to commercial development.

OLDS: We have been enjoying a very strong economy with little perceived downside in the immediate future. I think we’ve done well regarding our long term planning but now’s not the time to coast. We can’t be complacent with regards to the future we all desire. The whole state is doing well and as Wilmington becomes a more relevant option, we need to realize we compete with Raleigh and Charleston and Savannah; so we need to stay focused. The world has truly become smaller and consumers can go anywhere. Now’s the time make sure we have intelligent, logical planning and not the time to retract or take a protectionist attitude. 

Regarding particular concerns for our city and county, transportation is and will become a more contentious issue. I’d love to see a fast-track planning process for those regions in the state that are growing more rapidly.

LOUKAS: A recession would obviously impact the commercial real estate market; fortunately, we don’t currently have a lot of vacant space, which will help when rebounding.  

Also, our economy and real estate market do not have the depth that a larger area does; one small change could have a huge ripple effect on the area. For example, if one of our major employers decided to relocate to another region, it would send a shockwave throughout Wilmington and dramatically affect our economic base and potentially affect the amount of available real estate. Conversely, nCino’s expansion several years ago absorbed a significant chuck of our vacant office space around the Landfall area; office rates in this submarket had been flat for years, and then almost overnight, they jumped more than ten percent.  

What role do you see public-private partnerships playing in commercial real estate in the area?

LOUKAS:Public-private partnerships will become more prevalent as the availability of land continues to dwindle and our local municipalities become more comfortable with this structure. These partnerships can be a great formula and a win-win scenario, as each party is bringing something very meaningful to the table. A great example of this is the City of Wilmington’s Water Street Parking Deck that is currently being redeveloped by East West Partners.   

OLDS: This could be a huge opportunity to help foster additional growth and development. I see immense benefits where private development, listening carefully to market forces, can better position our cities and counties to provide timely response to consumer inclinations. If the goal is a better city, a better county, allow those taking the risk to play an active role in helping to steer the ship.

TYLER: We see a need for public-private partnerships in certain types of commercial real estate situations, and we have seen an increase in them over the past few years. A couple of notable recent examples include River Place in downtown Wilmington and a new on-campus housing development at UNC-Wilmington.

DULL: Allowing the private sector to help develop and redevelop public land benefits everyone. The least of which is putting valuable land back on the property tax roles. When the government and private sector work together, then your community is moving in the right direction.

How insulated is the Wilmington commercial real estate market to an economic downturn?

DULL: We are fortunate to be in one of the fastest growing areas of the US and if people continue to move here, we will be somewhat insulated. Job growth is always important for the overall economy and a well-diversified employer base of good, high paying jobs will help insulate us from another downturn. When the next down turn occurs we will be okay as long as it is not driven by real estate.

OLDS: We are certainly different in response to economic downturns and upturns - seems we lag both in time and severity. (Perhaps Dr. Adam Jones can offer an opinion.) While our economic diversity is good, it’s not perfect and we’re certainly not immune. Of great value are the natural amenities that make us desirable regardless of the economy, and a flow or in-migration of people that place greater value on the benefits of living here than the economy. My theory is retirees hit a certain age and are faced with location decisions whether or not the economy is cooperating. If we continue to be a desirable community, people will continue to come. Those with the ability to relocate from higher cost of living states likely have a financial plan that allows them to come here regardless of economic conditions.

LOUKAS: I don’t think it’s necessarily insulated, but I do believe the fact that we have a more diverse economy, both in number of industries and employers, than we did before the last recession will make us less vulnerable and will be more beneficial in a recovery.

GRAY: An economic downturn which in effect places less spending power with consumers is difficult to overcome. With almost half of Wilmington’s “critical consumer mass area” residing to the east in the ocean, i.e. non-existent, spending reductions by consumers is far reaching.

In what ways does commercial real estate growth in our region positively impact residents?

LOUKAS: Commercial real estate is essentially where we eat, work, play, and to a certain extent, live (if you count apartments). It can be an amenity that attracts new residents and businesses. And, while growth is a double-edged sword, it does provide more opportunities, including jobs and other items that make living in an area more enjoyable.

DULL: CRE growth is a barometer on how our region is growing. More residents and more jobs create more demand for amenities and services, which need commercial real estate to operate. This then feeds on itself as new and better commercial spaces create demand for further development. The multiplier effect of a healthy commercial real estate market helps the overall economy due to money earned in the market being spent in this market.

TYLER: The local economy is comprised of both individuals and businesses, helping each other succeed. Strong local economies help families thrive, and both drive economic growth of the region. At South State, we recognize we’re not just bankers. We’re also neighbors and friends who contribute to that local economic growth and play a vital role in the communities we serve. 

GRAY:  Residents are the critical mass which is required to make businesses thrive. Market studies are continually done to ascertain if that correlation exists to support new business. Paradoxical, commercial growth contributes to residents’ choices and travel distance. All things being equal it comes down to convenience.

OLDS: Simple – more tax money. Higher densities in commercial and retail zones add to the tax base at a greater rate than single family. This improves our municipal borrowing capabilities, which adds much needed improvements in public services and amenities that improve the quality of our built environment, thereby improving quality of life for residents. Our new projects have a more stringent set of requirements for storm water, structural and energy performance. We are making our community better with every project completed.

How much commercial real estate development is too much?

GRAY: Simply speaking when the consumer critical mass cannot support it.

OLDS: The market will tell us when we have too much. As we grow, if we keep the level of quality and concern for the end product, we can have a beautiful, sustainable, productive community that will continue to thrive and continue to attract people and businesses here. We have a special opportunity to continue making our region something really amazing. I can’t imagine living in a better place and at a better time!

DULL: There certainly can be too much of a good thing. Focusing on vacancy rates for certain sectors, growth trends for the area, and returns on capital are more important than ever to make sure an asset isn’t overbuilt which could lead to a bubble and another downturn. Demands on infrastructure and traffic are becoming more of a concern as well which should lead to more redevelopment and gentrification opportunities.

LOUKAS: Oversupply is always a major concern. When vacancies increase and rents lower, it could be argued that there is too much development for the near term. We are currently not seeing this as vacancies for all product types are very low, and rents are either stable or growing across the board.

What is the market split when it comes to commercial leases/rentals vs. ownership?

TYLER: South State Bank finances both owner-occupied and leased properties. We prefer pre-leasing where construction is involved, but we definitely see a healthy mix of both financing solutions.

DULL: I am not sure what the actual market split is for the area but I do think the recent sale / leaseback of Alcami and the Paycon lease are good examples of some businesses taking some chips off the table when it comes to real estate and using this cash to help recapitalize their balance sheet or fund growth.

LOUKAS: It’s hard to say exactly, but as land prices have drastically increased over the last 15 years, we have slowly transitioned from an owner-occupied dominant area to a leasing market. This trend will continue.

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