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Commercial Real Estate
Business Observer Thursday, Jun. 24, 2021 11 months ago

NY investor buys office complex at auction, plots renovation

Real estate investor George Graham breathes new life into a strategically located office building. He’s eyeing more projects in the region.
by: Beth Luberecki Contributor

George Graham knows how to see potential behind problems. So when the Metro Gardens office building at 2830 Winkler Ave. in Fort Myers was being sold at auction in 2019, he knew what was possible at the 49,615-square-foot site.

“I’ve been bullish on Southwest Florida for many, many years,” says Graham, a New York–based real estate investor. “Being able to make investments in Fort Myers at the right price and right time are very attractive to me, especially when it comes to a product like Class B office.”

'I’ve been bullish on Southwest Florida for many, many years.’ George Graham, Metro Gardens

Graham, 60, has been in this spot before — almost literally. He previously bought and redeveloped the nearby Metro Distribution Center, a 19-building complex he purchased from a special servicer, just like Metro Gardens. “So I know the neighborhood; I know this intersection [with Metro Parkway],” he says. “It’s just a good strategic location for a Class B office building.”

He also knew it wouldn’t take that much to refresh the 1980s-era single-story structure. “It’s a very simple layout and design and is, in a sense, a cookie-cutter Class B office,” he says. “When you have a building that doesn’t have a common area or elevators and has this type of simple layout, the costs to operate it are very low.”

So he bought it for $1.55 million, then turned to a trusted source to help with the overhaul: Matt Price, CEO of Fort Myers-based Seagate Development Group. The two have worked together for a dozen years on projects like the Metro Distribution Center.

“As sophisticated a real estate person as I might think I am, it’s impossible to do things in a place like Fort Myers if you don’t have someone who is going to be your partner and help get the work done,” says Graham. “I wouldn’t be taking on these projects if I didn’t have a partnership with Seagate.”

Metro Gardens had been a bit neglected over the years it was owned by a special servicer after a foreclosure. The parking lot needed to be repaved, and roofs required resealing. The property’s landscaping was updated and improved to both add curb appeal and make the building more visible from the road. Graham says the improvement costs have put him close to doubling his original investment in the property, so now around $3 million.

Courtesy. George Graham

That’s paid off. Metro Gardens had 50% vacancy when Graham bought it; now the site has only two vacant office suites totaling a little over 7,000 square feet. In 2020, SW Management & Realty, part of Seagate, leased 15,876 square feet there to the Area Agency on Aging for Southwest Florida. The 15-year agreement was the largest office lease in Lee County in 2020. Southwest Florida Home Care is also relocating its Lee County headquarters to Metro Gardens, in a 6,751-square-foot space.   

“One of the things George should get credit for is that most of the guys who come into town are coming in to make a quick buck,” says Price. “But with all the properties George has done in Southwest Florida, when he owns them, they get better. He puts the money needed into the upgrades and what he needs to do to put the right tenants in the right building. His track record in Southwest Florida is, I would say, second to none for someone who would take what I would call buildings that have maybe been left behind and bring them into a new era.”

Graham did just that at Metro Distribution Center, which he sold a few years ago. He also updated the landscaping there and improved the drainage on the property. “When I bought that property, we really didn’t need to do a whole lot to make a lot of money,” he says. “But we did things that now the current owner and tenants really appreciate, because it was for the long term. Today that property is a much more enjoyable place to be as a worker or owner….None of that paid us a penny in rent; it was really just the right thing to do.”

Graham, while working on some projects in Reno, Nevada, also keeps his eye out in both Lee and Charlotte Counties for his next Southwest Florida investment. Though he knows the east coast of Florida because his parents retired there years ago, he believes the west side of the state is better for investing. “I like this area for all the reasons why Florida is on the trajectory it’s on now,” says Graham. “I think that the west coast and its municipalities have been able to see some of the mistakes that got made in terms of the way the east coast was developed. I think the quality of life on the west coast is significantly better and the cost of living is lower. So I really believe long term that Southwest Florida has a relative value advantage to the east coast.”

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