Jack Lowell, a veteran of Miami’s office market, presided over a panel discussion Monday on the region’s real estate comeback where he asked one blunt question: “So how long before we screw it up? Three years?”
The line got the requisite laughs, but the recovery’s staying power emerged as a main and serious theme in a day-long economic forum put on by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. While momentum appears to be building for more growth, businesses aren’t ready to declare victory and leave the recession behind.
Our clients “see the signs of growth, but they worry about the recovery being fragile,’’ FPL President Eric Silagy said during his breakfast speech at the Chamber’s South Florida Economic Summit on at Jungle Island in Miami. “They worry about eternal shocks to the system.”
Washington remained the top question mark as business executives mapped out the economic landscape for 2013. Severe budget cuts are set to begin in March if the White House and Congress can’t reach a broader deal on deficit reduction, while the nation’s borrowing power will again hit a cap in May. Each dispute has the potential to become a debacle for the national economy, which otherwise seems poised for a good year.
“America is ready to grow,’’ JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon told the roughly 600 attendees. “We need good fiscal policy.”
South Florida’s housing market remains battered — values are off 46 percent from their peaks in 2006, according to the latest Case-Shiller real estate index. But values are now up as much as 10 percent from the prior year as sales return to levels last scene in 2006. That’s prompted developers to consider the consequences of rapid price spikes and whether they may be paying bubble-style prices for land where they can build.
“Prices are starting to escalate — somewhat dramatically,’’ Carlos Gonzalez, head of Lennar’s Southeast Florida division, told the audience attending Lowell’s real estate panel. “It’s going to bring us right back to where we were before the boom.”
Al Dotson, a land-use attorney at Bilzin Sumberg, told the panel he was seeing more developers pursuing the zoning changes needed for big projects in South Florida. But unlike during the boom days, he’s not seeing them lock up as much Florida land as they can. Instead, they’re pursuing one project at a time.
The recovering economy is reshaping other corners of South Florida’s once frenetic real estate industry. In the office market, where Lowell said the vacancy rate is about 20 percent, large firms don’t need the space they used to as they make do with fewer assistants and secretaries. “Law firms and accounting firms are reducing their need for staff to support the professionals who are actually doing the work,’’ Dotson said.
If office space lags the recovery, retail and warehouse space have left the recession far behind, panelists said. With major shopping centers in the works for Miami’s Design District and Brickell Avenue corridor, developers are counting on creating the space that matches the region’s population. “The smart money says Miami is a very under-developed retail market,’’ said Kenneth Krasnow, managing director for South Florida for the CBRE commercial brokerage.
Retailers want Miami locations in large part for the foreign cash that comes with the city’s international tourism market, and those dollars are helping fuel the current rebound in condominium ventures. But Lennar’s mainstay customer — the buyer of a suburban home in South Florida — remains a local resident who needs a mortgage, Gonzalez said.
“Credit-score requirements are higher than before,’’ he said. But local buyers “are qualifying for loans.”
Jane Wooldridge, the Miami Herald’s business editor, contributed to this report.