NORTHFIELD — Commercial real estate hasn’t recovered yet, and the office sector in particular remains challenged, but that hasn’t stopped Gerry Bird from developing and leasing office and retail spaces along Route 9 here.
“Everybody says, and in particular my wife says, are you nuts? I say, ‘If I don’t build them, I can’t rent them,’ ” said Bird, 59, of Ocean City.
His latest property is a former warehouse that had served J.J. Nugent Co. and Camden Flooring Co., in the stretch of New Road just south of Tilton Road.
Bird said he kept the 8,000-square-foot, completely renovated building “in an urban style, with an industrial motif.” The foyer is 30 feet tall, and there are exposed steel beams and ducts, and a big steel staircase.
Downstairs tenants already include Bloom Coffee and Tea, an art studio and a yoga studio.
Upstairs office space is rented to three doctors, he said, and will become the home of his Gerald Bird Development LLC.
Bird said his wife, Lorey, had long wanted to open a cafe, “and I had the crazy idea to put a cafe in that building.” To make it happen, they partnered with Ashley and Jeff Macpherson, of Linwood, who operate the business.
The property is the third along the busy road for Bird. A fourth is in the works.
A contractor for about 30 years, he said he got into development when he acquired and renovated a former furniture warehouse nearby at Route 9 and Mill Road in 2008. The 7,000-square-foot building hosts professional and nonmedical offices.
In 2011, Bird built a two-story brick office building from scratch across from the Central Square shopping center at Central Avenue. That 6,500-square-foot building, suitable for medical and other uses, includes an elevator.
Bird said he understands the skepticism of people about developing office space in a market with plenty of it vacant.
“When I drive the length of Route 9 from Somers Point through Northfield, there has got to be 75 signs on places for rent or for sale,” he said.
He said he thinks he’s been successful because “people want new stuff. … We give them something new for a good price.”
The latest commercial real estate forecast from the National Association of Realtors shows continued sluggishness, especially in the office sector.
“Office vacancies haven’t declined much because total jobs today are still below that of the pre-recession level in 2007,” Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, said in a statement.
The current 15.7 percent nationwide office vacancy rate is forecast to decline only to 15.5 percent a year from now.
Retail vacancies are expected to improve from the current 10.6 percent rate to an even 10 percent in the third quarter of 2014, the Realtors said.
Industrial properties are doing a bit better, Yun said, driven by demand for warehouse space as a result of increasing international trade. Industrial vacancies are forecast to drop to 8.7 percent in a year from 9.3 percent now.
Richard Baehrle, a broker-salesperson with Prudential Fox & Roach in Northfield, said he has 15 property transactions pending across all parts of the commercial market.
“The Atlantic County office market has shown signs of activity, primarily in the medical sector,” Baehrle said. “We remain optimistic that the overall market will continue to show signs of growth.”
The retail sector locally has struggled recently due to the continued slow economy and reduced employment in the casino industry, he said.
But several significant retail developments are ready to proceed, and will commence when consumer demand rebounds, he said.
Meanwhile, Bird’s next project probably will target a different niche in the office sector.
He has acquired a residential-looking building on New Road near Mill Road in Northfield and will renovate that next.
“I’m thinking about doing little suites, for people who want small offices for a little price,” Bird said. “I’m thinking of putting 600-square-foot offices in there.”
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