Driftwood, Merrimac close first Opportunity Zone deal in Flagler Village

Plans are to develop a 218-key Home2/Tru by Hilton

Carlos Rodriguez Sr., Carlos Rodriguez Jr. and a rendering of Home 2/Tru by Hilton
Carlos Rodriguez Sr., Carlos Rodriguez Jr. and a rendering of Home 2/Tru by Hilton

UPDATED, Jan. 3, 1:30 p.m.: As investors rushed to invest in Opportunity Zones before the end of the year, Driftwood Acquisitions & Development and Merrimac Ventures locked in their first deal in the federal tax program.

The Coral Gables-based investment firm Driftwood and Fort Lauderdale-based Merrimac closed a deal through an Opportunity Zone fund by raising $24 million to develop a 218-key dual-branded hotel. The Home 2/Tru by Hilton will be built at 315-333 Northwest 1st Avenue in Fort Lauderdale’s Flagler Village. The deal closed right before the end of the year, allowing investors to take advantage of the largest possible tax benefit in the Opportunity Zones program.

The deal also comes on the heels of the long awaited final regulations released by the U.S. Treasury and the IRS late last month, which experts say gives real estate investors the clarity to start putting money into Opportunity Zone real estate projects.

Jorge L. Gomez-Moller, Driftwood’s general counsel, said investment in the company’s Opportunity Zone fund has come from retail investors as well as wealthy family offices looking to take advantage of lucrative cash breaks. The project is expected to be completed within the first quarter of 2020.

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Driftwood and Merrimac secured a $28.4 million construction loan from Little Rock, Arkansas-based Bank OZK, to build the hotel. The bank is one of the most active construction lenders in South Florida, New York City and Los Angeles.

The deal is just one of many initiatives that Driftwood has in store for 2020, as Gomez-Moller said the company is seeking to raise $200 million to $250 million in capital through two new real estate funds. The company is also looking to reposition a 10-story office building in Wilmington, Delaware into a 136-room IHG-branded hotel.

The Flagler Village project is one of the few Opportunity Zone projects in South Florida in which investors will begin seeing cash flow in the next few months. Many other Opportunity Zone projects are in pre-development stages, according to Gomez-Moller.

Tucked into President Trump’s 2017 tax legislation, the Opportunity Zones initiative’s goal is to encourage private investment in distressed communities by allowing investors and real estate developers to defer or forgo paying capital gains taxes if they invest in one of the more than 8,700 zones throughout the country.

The program was the most talked about initiative in real estate, but demand has lagged behind the lofty expectations, due to delays in the rollout of the rules. In South Florida, developers claim they have struggled to find deals that pencil out due to the rising costs of land in Opportunity Zones.

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