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DALLAS-Rents are starting to rise. Vacancy is below 20%, at last. And there are plenty of buyers on the ground and horizon. But just like last year, it’s only in micro-markets and not across the board in Dallas/Fort Worth, industry experts concur.

Looking deep into what makes Dallas/Fort Worth tick, an estimated 300 industry leaders were on hand for the fourth annual RealShare Conference Series, held at the Hilton Lincoln Centre in North Dallas. In a fast-paced format of information-sharing sessions, Michael G. Desiato, editor in chief for Real Estate Media Inc., parent of Real Estate Forum and GlobeSt.com, promised the attendees at the start of the day that they’d learn “what’s going on and how to position yourself going forward.”

Whether it was keynote speaker Donnie Nelson, president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks and partner in the Frisco Square development, or Bill Cawley, chairman and CEO of locally based GVA Cawley, the advice was the same: build relationships and work hard to keep deals flowing. “It’s more a work ethic business than brainpower business,” Cawley said. “And, it’s more relationships than brainpower.”

Cawley talked about his struggles and successes to Desiato for this year’s Inside the Real Estate Mind. Cawley said principles, faith and family are his priorities today. “When nobody’s looking, you’ve got to be doing the right thing,” he said.

Cawley, like others in yesterday’s limelight, cautioned investors and developers alike to choose their markets carefully. From his perspective, the present winners are Richardson, Uptown and the Dallas North Tollway. The “challenged” markets are LBJ Freeway and Stemmons Corridor. And, he cautioned, playing the terrain in Las Colinas is for those who get in early and get out early. “People are buying in Dallas and they don’t know the market,” he said. His newest “journey” is raising a fund to buy distressed real estate in Portland, Orange County, Sacramento, Northern California, Denver, Houston and naturally, Dallas.

Buyers like BentleyForbes Group and Younan Properties Inc. like what they see in the DFW marketplace, but their top executives say it’s not been easy to get the right piece for the portfolio. Though buying habits differ greatly, Zaya Younan, founder and CEO of the Woodland Hills, CA-based Younan Properties, and David Cobb, president and CEO of BentleyForbes, say whether it’s now or three years from now, they’ll wish they had bought more Dallas office buildings.

“Local investors are trapped in the history that we have and the outside investor sees the opportunity,” said Tim Speck, regional managing director for Marcus & Millichap Real Estate Investment Brokerage Co. and part of the investment sales panel that included Younan, Cobb and a third buyer in town, Ronald Miller, managing partner for Meridian Global Investors.

All three buyers agree that to play in Dallas requires doing extra legwork because submarket conditions vary so widely. “You’ve go to be very cautious in this market,” Miller said.

As moderator of the investment sales panel, Russell Ingrum, executive vice president with CB Richard Ellis Inc., took a pulse reading on interest rates, present and predictions for the future. The consensus is retiring Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan will take one more shot before his exit, allowing his replacement, Ben Bernanke, to have a relatively quiet first year for his reign.

In the town hall meeting, panelists agreed office and industrial conditions have improved somewhat over last year, but again it’s only in select markets. “This year definitely is no worse than last year, said Jeff Thornton, leasing director for Indianapolis-based Duke Realty Corp. “It is improving, but it’s not dramatic.”

Richard Pogue, executive managing director for CBRE, moderated the town hall which pitted an office tenant rep, Bob Mohr of Mohr Partners Inc., against an office developer, Greg Fuller, managing director for Granite Properties, for a brief point-counterpoint discussion about vacancy versus construction. As Fuller pointed out, construction and rent hikes aren’t justified for many parts of Dallas, but there are pockets like the far north that validate reasons to build and tack on higher rates. And, he added, there are “definitely real deals” in the market unlike last year’s sundry tire kickers.

An office panel, moderated by Carl Ewert, executive vice president for the Staubach Co, pointed out that Dallas historically is a tenants’ market and that’s not likely to change anytime soon. Overall vacancy needs to drop three to four more points before “all rents start to rise,” explained Kim Butler, executive vice president for Transwestern Commercial Services. “We’re in equilibrium now. It will be late 2006 before we see some change.”

The panelists, for the most part, agreed local growth patterns will be slower than the norm and absorption for the near term will come from existing tenants and not relos. Still, there are encouraging signs–financial firms that left the city five and 10 years ago are now coming back, said Matt Craft with Trammell Crow Co. “At some point, owners will start pushing rents,” he said.

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