How much longer will Charlotte’s commercial real estate boom last?

A construction crane at Charlotte Douglas International Airport seen from the airport overlook, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017.
A construction crane at Charlotte Douglas International Airport seen from the airport overlook, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017.

It’s the biggest question right now in Charlotte’s booming commercial real estate market: How long will the good times last?

A forecast Thursday was mostly positive, with economists and local developers pointing to a few reasons for caution but more indicators that the real estate cycle hasn’t fully run its course.

“The global economy is actually expected to pick up the pace,” said Kevin Thorpe, global chief economist for Cushman & Wakefield. “Despite the maturing cycle, growth will accelerate over the next two years, and so will demand for real estate.”

In the short term, tax cuts by incoming President Donald Trump, combined with increased military and infrastructure spending by the federal government, could act as a massive stimulus to boost U.S. economic growth.

The forecast was sponsored by accounting firm GreerWalker and law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman, their tenth annual Outlook on the Commercial Real Estate Market event. The atmosphere, with hundreds of attendees sipping local craft beer and eating shrimp, still felt guardedly optimistic. It was a definite contrast with the first such forecast, in 2007, when one of the panelists lost his job that same day.

Here’s what Thorpe and the other panelists had to say about several key issues that could impact Charlotte’s commercial real estate market in 2017.

Aren’t we due for a downturn?

The current boom has been going on for the better part of a decade – long in historic terms. A recession would seem to be due. But Thorpe said 2016 – a year of slow growth in the U.S. and around the world – might have actually been the correction in markets people have been waiting for, just mild enough that it wasn’t recognized as such.

“My sense is some investors are trying to anticipate the next downturn,” said Thorpe. “But the downturn may have just happened.”

Not everyone in the audience was convinced. “Now you know it’s over,” one real estate professional quipped.

House Bill 2 is still a stumbling block

Thorpe said that though Charlotte’s GDP grew 2.9 percent in 2016 – well ahead of the national 1.6 percent average – HB2, the state’s controversial law limiting LGBT protections, is still having an impact.

“I don’t think you can get through a presentation in North Carolina without talking about HB2,” said Thorpe. The law has caused companies including CoStar Group and PayPal to cancel or choose other locations for expansions planned in Charlotte. Thorpe said that long-term, even if Charlotte’s growth continues at a rapid pace, HB2 would “bend the curve” of that growth down from its full potential.

“I’m an outsider looking in. The political environment seems really negative here,” said Thorpe. “I do think it’s really important you get the negativity out of the market.”

Some real estate caution signs are out

Walker Collier, of Charlotte-based Trinity Capital Advisors, said his firm is hearing more hesitation from institutional investors for new projects. “Hitting pause,” “better to take a break than make a mistake” and “selective” are all phrases Colllier said they’re hearing more frequently now. Trinity is looking at selling properties that are well-leased or complete.

“Our view is yes, this could continue, but better safe than sorry,” said Collier.

We’re not done with apartments

With a record number of apartments under construction in Charlotte, Thorpe said increases in rent are likely to slow.

“I would be anticipating that your apartment sector is going to see a pretty significant softening of rents in the next few years,” said Thorpe. But he said the market fundamentals – strong population and jobs growth, and a shift towards renting over owning for many younger people – will keep the apartment sector from crashing. And get ready for even more new apartments next decade.

“By 2019, maybe 2020, you’re going to be under-building again,” he said. “Yes, you all are building a lot, but you’re also absorbing a lot.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo