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(Crystal Proenza is associate editor of Real Estate Florida.)

MIAMI BEACH, FL-Now is the time to get serious about purchasing land, urged panelists at an event held by the Colliers International land advisory practice group on Sept. 26. Speakers helped an audience of brokers from around the country see a bright side in the snowballing downturn by discussing funds actively looking for land deals, with advice about how to get those deals done from the perspective of developers, bankers and attorneys. The session was part of a three-day 2008 Colliers International Conference held at the Loews Hotel in Miami Beach.

“Land is really local, but in today’s world, especially with large portfolios being taken back by banks, we’re finding there are opportunities outside of our local markets,” said Mark Dolemba, senior vice president of Colliers B&K in Rosemont, IL. Each of the speakers representing land acquisition funds from around the country agreed, making clear that they were actively searching for deals to get a jump on the next up cycle.

“We’re looking in any key markets that meet a certain threshold for drivers, such as international trade,” said Jeremy Shapiro, First Industrial Realty Trust’s senior regional director for South Florida. “This year we have spent almost $400 million in acquisitions, and still have a lot of funds available, and we are looking.” Jon Beckner, real estate manager with Berlin-Atlantic Co., which deploys German capital in the US, said his fund is targeting states with growing population demographics, including Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.

David Moore, director of investments with the Dallas-based Stratford Co., said the private equity land fund has purchased on speculation in the past few years, but has now had to “reinvent the wheel” because of pricing pressure on land. However, he says, the $400-million fund is still looking to buy now as an opportunistic fund.

Despite the current slowdown in sales velocity, speakers say opportunities are out there and that transaction volume will improve over the next six months. “Regional banks are beginning to put out some bad-debt portfolios to see if they can get them off their books,” said Moore, speaking directly to the brokers about the available deals that are coming to the table. “The banks are going to brokerage companies to help advise them on how to get rid of this paper,” he said, adding that a strategic move for brokers would be to talk to banks to foster relationships that funds and REITs will find valuable. Panelists looking to acquire land confirmed that they would be interested in buying bank notes, but warned that there is usually only a short time available for due diligence with such deals.

Panelists spoke about unique opportunities arising from the failing economy, including bankruptcy cases for entitled land that has been partially developed or undeveloped, said David Rosendorf, an attorney with Miami-based Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton that deals exclusively with commercial bankruptcy and litigation. “There are opportunities for savvy and opportunistic buyers to come into these deals if they are willing to work within that system and undertake risks,” he said.

Jeffrey Adams, CEO and principal with Western Capital, a private lender based in Colorado, said funds with equity have an advantage in this market because it will be years before the lenders “come back” and that new practices will be adopted in the meantime. “Hedge funds will probably take the place of Lehman Bros. and people like us will take the place of community banks.”

After the discussion, Stephen Nostrand, executive vice president with Coral Gables-based Colliers Abood Wood-Fay, told GlobeSt.com that the most valuable piece of information given at the panel was that there are actually equity land buyers who have experience with a real interest in placing their money. “The fact there are folks who really want to buy land is refreshing, and it’s a serious benefit to brokers,” Nostrand said.

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