Brokerage firm jumps into retail development

Liberty in the News

Brokerage firm jumps into retail development

October 03, 2004

A longtime Central Florida retail real estate broker is cautiously entering the world of development.

 

Jack Liberty, president of Liberty Universal Management Inc., has spent about two decades in leasing and managing retail properties. And while his focus is still very much on brokerage, Liberty slowly is becoming a player in development.

 

"Over the years, as we continue to learn to add value, we'd stumble across a deal and started developing it for ourselves," says Liberty, "but we never gave up the business of brokerage."

 

Today, Liberty Universal leases or manages about 1.2 million square feet in 35 shopping centers in Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Volusia, Brevard and Lake counties. But Jack Liberty also owns three of those plazas, including the 175,000-square-foot BJ's Wholesale Club property at John Young and Osceola parkways in Osceola County.

 

While he works on securing retail and casual fast-food restaurants for the center, Liberty appears as if he can afford to enter a new realm of commercial real estate simultaneously.

 

Liberty says his vacancy rate hovers around 1.6 percent, even in older properties including Tuskawilla Bend near Oviedo and Suncrest Village on University Drive. And that's occurring while retail is growing nationwide.

 

Developers added 660 shopping centers in 2003 alone. Shopping centers had nearly $2 trillion in sales, accounting for 76 percent of all non-automotive retail sales, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

 

So low vacancies, even during industry growth, allow Liberty to continue expanding.

 

He currently is bringing out of the ground a 15,000-square-foot retail and restaurant plaza, tentatively called the Shoppes at Florida Mall, in front of Saks Fifth Avenue at the south Orlando mall. That project should be completed by the holiday season and will also include casual fast food, similar to Atlanta-based Moe's Southwest Grill or Orlando-based Baja Burrito Kitchen.

 

Liberty also is working on getting non-anchor stores to abut the Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse on 6 acres on the corner of Barnes and Fiske boulevards in Rockledge.

 

Even though his company is growing, 45-year-old Liberty still remains low-key. He doesn't have a company Web site, and his five employees work in a converted 1922 rustic home on Anderson Street near downtown.

 

"At some point in time in his career, he and I will be competitors," says Don Huber, managing member of the development firm Huber Group LLC in Orlando, who's teamed up with Liberty on past projects. "He's learning the business, and it's an evolution you have to go through."

 

Liberty is entering a crowded arena, as Florida has the second-highest amount of gross leasable area, 469 million square feet, behind California's 738 million.

 

Says Pat Callaway, the chief development officer of NAI Realvest Partners Inc. in Maitland who teamed up with Liberty a decade ago to work on projects including the 280,000-square-foot Lake Mary Centre in Lake Mary: "Everyone in the world is developing retail now, and there's so much competition. "It takes lots of guts."

Team Associated

Jack Liberty