MANATEE -- Real estate trend numbers can get pretty geeky, especially in commercial real estate. Janet Robinson knows this, even though she is among the geekiest.
For the past 4 1/2 years, Robinson, a commercial director with Coldwell Banker Commercial in Sarasota, has taken it upon herself to be a translator of sorts. Every quarter, she collects sales and leasing trend numbers for industrial, commercial, office and apartment properties in Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties, then streamlines them into a tidy PowerPoint presentation.
"Tidy" is relative. The report is about 70 pages long, so it's not a light read. But it's an important one if you want to know where the jobs will be and what types of buildings to buy and build as an investment.
The most recent Sarasota/Manatee/Charlotte Region Report, completed for the fourth quarter of 2013, boils down to this:
Apartment buildings are hot. Vacancies are low, so premium apartments are generally selling for more than the asking price. Building new apartments is becoming a pretty safe bet for investors, but renters are paying more with each passing quarter.
Industrial buildings are almost hot. Manatee County saw leases drop more than 492,000 square feet out of the market last year. Big building contractors are sniffing around the area to build more industrial space, which could mean more jobs are on the way.
Office space is not as hot. While University Parkway, Lakewood Ranch and downtown Sarasota office spaces are staying full, everywhere else vacancy numbers are in excess of 20 percent. Downtown Bradenton just went under 30 percent for the first time in years.
Ditto for retail. Out of 19.3 million total square feet of retail space in Manatee County, only about 12,000 square feet are currently under construction, according to the report. Sarasota County is doing better with nearly 900,000 square feet under construction, but that includes the Mall at University Town Center.
The report doesn't have a snappy acronym, nor is it a work of statistical magic. It's just old-fashioned number crunching that boils a complicated subject down to a few truths. Robinson compiles the report because she wants her clients, bankers and other commercial professionals to have the information they need to make "educated decisions" about leases, purchases, even building new
She also wants to make sure the brokers in her office are never in the dark when they're trying to make a sale or negotiate a lease.
"We get to be known as experts in our field," she said.
Robinson rolls her PowerPoint out about 20 times a quarter, primarily for bankers and other real estate professionals. David Brooks, the former market president for BB&T Bank's commercial division in Manatee County, said the report has helped him keep perspective on the market.
"When you're trying to make things happen and put together new business opportunities, you don't have time to do the sort of thing Janet and her team has done," said Brooks, an admitted numbers geek himself. "It is of great value to have objective third-party, primary research compiled and presented regularly to validate your own impressions."
The report pulls numbers from the economic development corporations in Manatee and Sarasota counties, real estate analytical firms Trendgraphix and CoStar Group, the National Association of Realtors, and Coldwell Bankers' own researchers. Because it is so locally focused, the EDC information is the cornerstone of the office data.
Debra Cooper, a senior investment adviser with the Bradenton Sperry Van Ness office, heads the committee at the Bradenton Area EDC that tracks about 11 million square feet of office space in Manatee County. The numbers are crucial to the EDC as it works to bring more businesses to the county. It's also important to the real estate professionals the EDC hosts quarterly to go over the survey results.
"It's the first place they go to," Cooper said.
Knowing that the professionals in the market rely on the survey's data is a feather in Robinson's cap. But the real meaning behind her numbers shows in how people live and work in the three-county area. Full commercial buildings translate into low unemployment and a good economy, she said. Every square foot of office space or factory floor that gets leased means more people are at work. And that means more apartments will be needed for a growing workforce.
"Office space, industrial space, are value-added jobs," she said.
She knows what she's talking about. A Pennsylvania native, she spent the first 10 years of her career selling mining equipment in coal country. When she came to Florida, she sold boxes to industrial clients. That's how she got to know the more than 500 warehouse, dock truck, and manufacturing buildings in her current market.
As time goes on, Robinson's hope is that her reports can help guide more businesses into bargain-priced space in downtown Bradenton, and suburban areas around the county that are still seeing double-digit vacancy numbers.
These are places investors can purchase "distressed" properties, fix them up at low cost, then lease them to businesses.
And once that fills, perhaps a new building boom is not far behind. It's just not going to happen right now.
"There's so much space on the market now that the chances of someone building other than for a specific client are slim," she said.
Robinson's first-quarter 2014 report will be finished by end of April. She plans to do even more presentations this year, particularly to attorneys and wealth management professionals. She will also present to groups with a general interest in the report.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald real estate reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.