UNIVERSITY PARK -- Buoyed by active leasing and low vacancies, the office market in and around University Park is as good as it gets in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Want to know how good? Just ask Kelley Matheson, a leasing broker who was part of a team that put together more than 91,000 square feet of leases on North Cattleman Road and Sarasota County this year.
In October, Matheson's firm, Pointe Group Advisors, capped a seven-month run of big leases by letting more than 27,000 square feet in a new lease to Global Financial Private Capital at the Gateway Professional Center at 501 N. Cattlemen Road. The lease came as vacancies in the Lakewood Ranch and University Park areas hovered between 8.6 and 9.2 percent for the third quarter for buildings measuring 10,000 square feet or more.
Activity at Gateway -- a 12-year-old multi-building office park just south of The Mall at University Town Center -- has picked up along with other office real estate in the area. Fifty percent vacant in 2012, the buildings are now 86 percent leased. More lease deals in the works are expected to bring occupancy up to 90 percent.
Matheson said easy access to Interstate 75 and the relative newness of the office space brought a lot of inquiries this year.
"It's just made this center very attractive," she said.
That attractiveness seems to be nearly universal around University Park. Third -uarter statistics compiled by Janet Robinson, commercial director for Coldwell Banker NRT Commercial in Sarasota, show the area's office leasing market to be the healthiest in the two-county area. Overall, the quarter saw little change from mid-year, with office vacancies in all of Manatee County dropping a few points to 10.5 percent.
Average office vacancy in suburban Manatee County was 20.7 percent for the quarter. Downtown Bradenton lagged behind all other areas in the county at 28.4 percent vacancy.
In Sarasota County, Venice had the most open cubicles, with almost 35 percent
of available office space unleased. Downtown Sarasota ended the quarter with 12 percent vacancy.
Lease rates were part of the equation. In Sarasota County, the average gross lease rate for the quarter was $18.54 per square foot, as low as almost any time during the past five years. In Manatee County, lease rates continued a three-year rebound, hitting $17 per square foot after hitting a $15.75 low in mid 2011.
More popular properties can lease well above the average. For example, the gross lease rate at Gateway is in the $23 per square foot range.
Robinson said the good times office property owners in University Park are experiencing should not be over- emphasized. Across Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties, there is still 24 to 36 months supply of unused office space, some left over from a glut of space hitting the leasing market in 2009.
Office space consumers, Robinson said, just don't need as much space anymore. They tend to plan their leases to include just 125 square feet per employee, down from 225 a few years ago. Flexible schedules, job sharing and work-from-home agreements have employers across the country cutting back on how much bricks and mortar they dedicate to workers.
"A lot has to do with the fact that people can use their computers anywhere," Robinson said.
Leasing is also being impacted by the popularity of purchasing. Low interest rates have more companies buying space and competing for properties, Robinson said. In Manatee and Sarasota counties, buyers are generally paying well above asking prices.
On average, office properties sold for $148 per square foot in Sarasota County in the third quarter. Manatee County properties went for $130.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.