Resurgent Woolbright Development ramps up retail buying

Duane Stiller
Duane Stiller

After a string of foreclosures and short sales battered Woolbright Development’s portfolio during the recession, the Boca Raton-based shopping center specialist has quietly acquired retail properties in Pembroke Pines, Margate and Orlando over the last five months.

“We are really positive [about] where we are today,” Woolbright president Duane Stiller said. “We have high occupancy rates and we still have eight of the 20 largest real estate investors in the U.S. as our clients.”

Stiller spoke to The Real Deal shortly after he participated in a panel discussion assessing investor demand for retail, office and industrial real estate during Thursday’s CBRE’s 2015 Commercial Real Estate Forecast event at Brickell Avenue’s Four Seasons Hotel. He said Woolbright is targeting retail plazas that are hovering at 85 percent occupancy.

“One in five shopping centers in Florida has 15 percent or more vacancy,” Stiller said. “Our goal is to buy those centers and get them up to 100 percent.”

Before last decade’s crash, Woolbright was “the most opportunistic buyer” of South Florida shopping centers, according CBRE Americas CEO Calvin W. Frese Jr., who moderated the panel. But the company was hit hard by the recession, losing a half-dozen retail assets to foreclosure and short sales.

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In 2011, Woolbright unloaded two Boynton Beach shopping centers in short sales for a combined $20 million. The properties were sold at a 44 percent discount from the value of the mortgages. In 2013, Compass Bank seized the 86,622-square-foot West Sunset Square retail plaza in Miami after foreclosing on a $26 million mortgage owed by Woolbright.

It was uncharted territory for Stiller’s company, he said. “All you can do is stay positive and take action,” Stiller said. “We have great experts and advisors who guided us through a time very few of us had experienced.”

Woolbright is now back to its aggressive buying habits, Broward County records show. In May, the company purchased the Westfork Plaza at 15977 Pines Blvd from Terranova Corp. for $44.8 million. The mall is anchored by a Regal Cinemas movie theater, Office Max, Payless ShoeSource and Navarro Pharmacy. Three months later, Woolbright partnered with Dallas-based Lone Star Funds to buy the Peppertree Plaza in Margate for $39.2 million from an affiliate of New York-based Kimco Realty.

Last month, Woolbright closed on Rio Pinar Plaza, a 118,295-square-foot shopping center anchored by Publix and Planet Fitness in Orlando, according to Stiller.

“Then we have an upcoming closing for a shopping center in Bonita Springs,” he said. “We see the market growing stronger.”