Making room for startups

The owners of Charlotte's Fordham Park are doing something that all real estate developers strive for but few accomplish in challenging economic times.

They are hitting the market at precisely the right moment with their latest project – a two-building, 81,000-square-foot expansion on Griffith Road in southwest Charlotte.

The 41 new office-warehouse-showroom units in the 22-acre park target the small businesses that economists anticipate will start up during the economic slowdown with spaces ranging from 1,250 to 6,400 square feet and starting at a monthly rental rate of $1,000.

A Next Big Thing?

“Smaller units are a good niche in the market for the next 12 months or so,” said Jeff Edge, senior vice president of economic development at the Charlotte Chamber.

“I got a call the other day from someone looking to start up a business,” he said. “A product like this will be helpful for folks who need only a thousand or two square feet.”

At Fordham Park, “That's what we bring to the table,” said Senior Vice President Jim Emmanuel of Ford Realty Co. Inc., which handles leasing and management for the ownership group, Griffith Group II LLC.

Many startup business operators have difficulty estimating how much space they will need and how to figure rent into their costs, he said.

“Here, they can do a one-year lease on one of our smaller spaces and move as they grow into our larger spaces or one of our other business parks,” Emmanuel said. “Our building with the smaller units is almost like a business incubator.”

Workers laid off by downsizing employers often become more entrepreneurial and typically start small businesses when the job market tightens, economists say.

In the Charlotte Chamber's third quarter survey on economic growth, for example, 55 (nearly 33 percent) of the 167 new firms listed said they employ 10 or fewer people.

Emmanuel has leased five units since Ford Realty began marketing the new buildings about 1 1/2 months ago.

Brian Carney, who retired from Bank of America about 1 1/2 years ago, was one of the first to arrive.

He owns Silver Cross, a franchise office of a firm that sells and distributes new and recycled home stair lifts, wheelchair ramps, elevators and other accessibility products tailored to individual clients.

A 1,500-square-foot space “was perfect for us,” he said. “We can showcase some of our products, and we have a warehouse for storage.”

Other tenants include Perfectly Painted, a painting, faux finishes and wall coverings firm; Carolina Craft Distributing LLC, a wine and beer distributor; Club Assist USA LLC, an AAA vendor, and Tarheel Linen Service Inc., a uniform and linen rental service.

The location on a scarce parcel of industrial-zoned land in close proximity to the urban core was an important factor in Carney's decision.

Fordham Park, behind the Tyvola Road Costco warehouse store, is near Interstate 77 and South Boulevard and within a block of a light-rail transit station.

From there, Carney said, he can reach clients as far away as Rock Hill and the Lake Norman area within 30 minutes.

Edge at the Charlotte Chamber said light rail access is becoming more important to businesses seeking space.

“For a lot of companies it's important to be where they can attract labor rather than so far out where there is no light rail,” he said.

Edge points out that some industrial areas near the light-rail line are starting to shift toward retail and residential. That hasn't gone unnoticed at Fordham Park.

Emmanuel said the next building, two stories and roughly 30,000 square feet, will face Griffith Road at the front of the site. He expects its ground level to appeal to tenants seeking restaurant and shop space.

And as the area changes, he can envision the small spaces becoming attractive as studios for creative businesses.

The park's architects designed its buildings with architectural fins and aluminum awnings to distinguish them from the boxy warehouses of earlier generation business parks.

Fordham Park's first structure, completed in 1999, targets larger users with 113,000 square feet of bulk warehouse-distribution space. Tenants in there include Loaves & Fishes' food warehouse.

Ford Realty initially planned a bulk distribution facility in the second phase as well, but shifted its strategy a few years ago to offer the smaller units.

That's because Dilworth Business Park, the small business oriented park it managed off South Boulevard, was sold to Lowe's for a home improvement store, condos, offices and shops, Emmanuel said.

Fordham Park's available second-phase acreage offered a replacement site.

“We were taking about 80,000 square feet off the market, and we really recreated it here,” Emmanuel said. “We created our own economic development piece on land we already owned.”

The ownership group – Emmanuel, Patrick Hunter III and Michael Hunter – invested about $4.5 million in the two newest buildings.

“Nothing is recession proof,” Emmanuel said. “But we don't believe this business is affected as much by a downturn.”

Fordham Park is adjacent to the owners' Griffith Commercial Park. Together, they cover about 35 acres.

Further expansion is likely. Emmanuel said the owners are acquiring adjacent parcels.