Business

September 30, 2013

Airbus may lead to more development in Mobile

Downtown Mobile, Ala., faces unprecedented development opportunity with Airbus setting up shop just minutes down the road, but savvy developers will need to time their participation almost perfectly to maximize mounting revitalization efforts.

Downtown is prepared to absorb many new businesses and employees. Our development and real estate communities are working closely together to accommodate this new demand for commercial space. We also have a great deal of vacant land downtown that presents opportunities for the creation of more office, retail or residential space when needed, said Carol Hunter, spokeswoman for the Downtown Mobile Alliance.

We are already seeing long-vacant properties being renovated for new tenants and would expect that trend to escalate in coming months, she said, noting downtown Mobile’s top-rated office space remained more than 90 percent occupied throughout the national recession, and only about 100,000 square feet of Class A office space remains available to date.

Despite a flurry of recent activity by established companies seeking to infuse themselves into that urban fabric, however, Hunter said those opportunities could be fleeting.

People are fleeing the deteriorating office buildings, and those properties will have to be improved if landlords expect to attract any of these potential tenants. Because tenants tend to choose properties that have already been renovated and upgraded, opportunities will be missed by property owners who do not move quickly, she said.

Elizabeth Sanders, the alliance’s president and chief executive officer, said highly visible – and active – downtown mainstays such as Hargrove Engineers + Constructors and Red Square Agency are certainly doing their part to protect the quality of the urban experience, but revitalization efforts simply cannot rest on the shoulders of a handful of innovators.

We live in a work-anywhere environment, Sanders told attendees of its recent annual luncheon, but people thrive on human interaction. And this is our task.

So the question remains, as Mobile prepares to welcome what economic developers anticipate to be an onslaught of foreign direct investment as Airbus’ $600 million aircraft assembly line finally takes shape and nearby Austal USA continues expanding, what role will the alliance play in boosting recruitment efforts that develop and backfill the city center?

Hunter said it’s simply an issue of careful planning and execution.

With the proximity of Brookley to downtown, we would expect the demand for our office and residential opportunities to remain strong, she said, adding, The alliance has been working for years to create a more livable, walkable city center. As those efforts take hold, they create an environment attractive to the office, retail and residential markets.

The key to creating the sort of urban core necessary to support and sustain future economic growth, however, will be the adoption of form-based code, she said.

This code creates a harmonious and seamless transition between the many different urban `neighborhoods’ and gives developers more certainty as they undertake projects. Now that the housing market has stabilized a bit, we are looking for more residential development downtown – in all its shapes and forms, including market-rate rental in the core and single-family housing around the edges, Hunter said.

Of course, housing alone – no matter how appealing – will never sustain a thriving downtown core, but more office workers and more residents mean more customers, so attempts to lure additional retailers to the city center will continue in earnest.

In addition, a shopping/dining destination is a big draw for visitors. With the additional development immediately south of downtown at Brookley, the opportunity to develop another business and/or convention class hotel presents itself, Hunter said.

In the near term, however, revitalization efforts such as the Retirement Systems of Alabama’s overhaul of the 10-story, 105-year-old Van Antwerp building at the corner of Dauphin and Royal streets are attracting a lot of attention.

(That) building will provide more office space in the central business core, and outlying office buildings will continue to provide opportunities for smaller tenants, she said.

As the first announced tenant of the Van Antwerp building, BBVA Compass is making more than a statement by relocating its Mobile headquarters from Bel Air Boulevard to the first three floors of the historic structure.

We’re trying to tell our story, said Mark Fillers, south Alabama market president for the Birmingham-based bank.

In fact, he said his institution – currently the second-largest in deposit market share in Mobile – embodies the melding of international influence and hometown expertise Mobile is going to need to fully realize its development potential as the economy expands.

We have a strong local team, but we are also backed by a global financial services company with a presence in 33 countries, and Mobile (is generating) a lot of interest from an international perspective right now, he said.

We’re part of a global economy and have been for quite some time. What happens in Europe today is going to affect us – in Mobile – tonight. It’s all intertwined, and even though the banking industry has seen a lot of consolidation in recent years, that activity is going to continue for the next several years, and you need a little muscle behind you to be poised for that, Fillers said.

In turn, whether it’s signage on the Van Antwerp building beckoning to the new companies and residents developers are hopeful will fuel a continued downtown resurgence or connections half a world away that allow BBVA Compass to – here in Mobile – service an Airbus supplier headquartered overseas, Fillers said geography and timing have aligned perfectly to give his company an edge it would be foolish not to take.

We’re on the map now, and with all of (Mobile’s) assets – rail, a deep-water port, interstates – this is just an awesome place for a global company to move to and be part of a great growth area, he said.

As a lifelong Mobilian, however, he also admits the opportunity to be part of this period of transformation is simply too strong to ignore.

It is just remarkable to stop and think where we’re going to be 10 or 20 years from now, Fillers said.




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