Zeroing in on commercial vacancies
By DANIEL MEYER
A quick survey of commercial properties in Western New York reveals a number of empty storefronts, some of which were occupied at one time by big-box stores that for one reason or another relocated or simply closed.
While it is fair to say that many of the vacancies likely have something to do with the real estate boom years ago and its later unwinding, some of the structures are relatively new construction that's now sitting empty.
Realtors and developers face challenges in filling them, whether by selling, renting or leasing, especially given the economic condition of the state and the country in general.
So it can be frustrating to see new-builds pop up across the region when many storefronts remain empty, sometimes for years.
While there's a number of factors that play into whether a business moves into an existing structure or starts off fresh with a new-build, there are some key components that go into the process of choosing a location.
First and foremost is having a Realtor and/or developer identify the specific needs at a location that a particular business desires and requires to operate efficiently.
"As a developer, your No. 1 one need is knowing exactly what your Realtor's goals are," says Robert McDonnell, senior vice president of Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. "That is obviously what you focus on. What the client wants has to be identified and always kept in mind."
Also playing a role is the personal preferences of each client. Some may have a strong desire to fit into a particular neighborhood, and finding an existing structure already established as part of the community may play great importance and take precedence over the concept of finding property on which to construct a new-build.
"It all comes down to what your client wants, and if a building can be retrofitted to their standards and fit into their budget, then an existing building could be the best thing," says Realtor Fred Occhino of Hunt Real Estate Corp. "That's where they are going to be working every day, so they need to be happy and satisfied with their surroundings."
The at-times controversial subject of zoning regulations always plays a role, no matter the city, town or village a property is located in, and those mandatory requirements for occupancy might limit potential uses.
"In certain communities, it can be difficult to rezone a particular property based on the zoning laws, regulations and requirements that they have on the books," says Scott Roth, a Realtor with Militello Realty.
"There are little steps and hurdles pretty much everywhere you go, from parking spots to signage to some other more specific zoning regulations that you may not even be aware of at first," he says.
"The rule of thumb, for me, is to immediately contact the code enforcer to see exactly what the zoning is and what kind of vision the town or village or city have in mind for that particular property," says Greg Oehler, chief operating officer of Hunt Commercial Real Estate.
"They usually know what you can do, so I always reach out to them right away because they can end up being your best friend or your worst enemy."
Another reason some storefronts remain vacant for a significant period of time is this: The property owner may not want to rent or lease the space to a marginal tenant, especially if the business is in a category with high failure rates.
Avoiding the headaches and high costs associated with the eviction process is a natural safeguard.
"The key to the game is obtaining financing, and if their business plan cannot secure the necessary funds to operate, it's simply not a good fit," says McDonnell. "You don't want to have someone fold up and close the shop before they even open the doors. That's the ultimate nightmare."
In addition, business owners operating in a weak economy might struggle to turn a profit, even if the rent for their space is considered reasonably affordable.
"There are things that for the general public may be tough to understand, but the developer ultimately is the one who makes the decision on what will be housed in his building," says Marty Dellebovi, executive vice president and director of real estate for the Benchmark Group.
"Rent is only one of many business expenses. If the profits do not cover the cost of things like permits, utilities, taxes and paying your employees, then it really doesn't matter how great of a deal you get on rent because you won't be in business that long," he says. "Rent is the tail, not the dog."
A frequent suggestion that Western New York Realtors and developers hear is for a dramatic decrease in monthly rent for vacant properties, with the thinking that occupancy will automatically lead to retail success.
"It costs money to operate buildings when they are occupied," Dellebovi says. "It costs the developer in most cases a significant amount of money to fill a vacancy with all of the expenses that are associated with owning a property. Just filling up all the vacant storefronts is easier said than done."
"You have to do your due diligence and look at their business plan," adds McDonnell.
"If they are not going to be able to consistently turn a profit, you will likely dismiss them rather quickly as a tenant. So in some cases it doesn't make sense to fill a vacancy just for the general public's satisfaction that it is occupied," he said.
Industry professionals agree that properties must be individually evaluated and that, generally speaking, the ultimate decision of whether to base a business in an existing structure or move ahead with a new-build has to be done on a case-by-case basis.
Says Roth: "Some people may get up in arms about a new-build being constructed in close proximity to a vacant property, but there are a number of factors that are at play, including simply not being able to strike a deal with the landlord of the existing structure."
Daniel Meyer is a freelance writer from Hamburg.