John J. Leary, CRE, leads a meeting at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Bon Air, Va.

John J. Leary, CRE, leads a meeting at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Bon Air, Va. As part of CRE Consulting Corps, he’s helping church officials and other stakeholders grapple with how to make the best use of land and buildings left vacant after an affiliated school moved across town.

Experts With a Mission

The Consulting Corps makes a powerful difference in how towns, nonprofits, and institutions tackle vacant properties, difficult-to-develop land, and other real estate challenges.

November - December
2018

If there’s something stale in your neighborhood, who you gonna call? Well, if there were a “Ghostbusters” for the goblins that haunt real estate development, it would be CRE Consulting Corps. The public service program was established in 1997 by The Counselors of Real Estate, an affiliate of the National Association of REALTORS®. The Corps offers municipalities, schools, and nonprofit organizations analysis and advice on vexing real estate challenges. A project may be as small as advising a small town on what to do with a shuttered big-box store or as large as helping the nation of Poland maximize the potential of property along its national railway system.

The problem solvers, all CRE members, bring expertise in the needed subject areas, and their work is an act of professional largesse: Counselors donate their time. Consulting Corps’ clients pay an administrative fee and reimburse the volunteers for travel expenses.

Since the program’s inception more than 20 years ago, economic and cultural changes have made the problems tackled by the Corps far more complex. The Great Recession took a major toll that’s still being felt today by private companies, nonprofit organizations, and communities. Demographic shifts continue to challenge the real estate portfolios of religious and educational institutions. Consulting Corps is well positioned to help groups buffeted by these changes to adjust and thrive.

When Consulting Corps chooses a project from its pool of applicants, CRE sends a team of five or six experts on a weeklong site visit to conduct interviews, survey land and properties, and ultimately make recommendations for how best to use space that isn’t operating at full potential. The group’s credibility—and absence of profit motive—often helps to generate buy-in from the larger community for ambitious, and sometimes controversial, redevelopment projects.

Cutting Through Inertia

Downtown Fairborn

Shops in Fairborn, Ohio, had trouble competing with two nearby malls. The Corps helped officials recognize and enhance their historic downtown’s vintage “cool factor” to attract shoppers, especially younger ones.

As outsiders, Consulting Corps can help locals see opportunities in their community that others have missed. City officials in Fairborn, Ohio, knew they needed to attract new development to fill commercial vacancies and revitalize their historic downtown. But it seemed impossible to overcome the negative image held by investors and business owners about the town of 33,000 inhabitants. “Fairborn suffered from disinterest in the region,” says City Manager Rob Anderson. “No one was willing to make that investment in Fairborn.”

On recommendations from CRE Consulting Corps in the summer of 2016, the town bought up and tore down problem properties; opened up a kitchen incubator to provide fledgling food start-ups with a certified location to do business; and expanded its relationships with a nearby college and air force base. Fairborn also eased permitting rules and timelines to make it easier to do business with the city. At the beginning of the process, Fairborn had 10 vacant storefronts to fill; a year and a half later, it was down to one. Anderson proudly notes that all the tenants occupying formerly vacant spots are small businesses who’d been looking to open up a first or second location.

Preston, Conn.

Some 400 acres of abandoned land and buildings presented a development opportunity in Preston, Conn. Corps consultants reinforced the progress made by local officials, who had limited real estate experience. The credibility the Corps conferred paved the way for a successful property sale.

When Sean Nugent, chair of the Preston Redevelopment Agency, welcomed Consulting Corps to his small Connecticut town in March 2015, he was excited but also nervous. His agency had spent four years cleaning up nearly 400 acres that had been home to the abandoned Norwich State Hospital. The town acquired the land from the state in 2011, and the site had been overrun with crumbling buildings. It attracted more vandals, copper-wire thieves, and ghost-hunting television producers than investors, and Nugent worried the Corps would deem their initial efforts inadequate. “For a group of 17 volunteers and a town of about 5,000 people and no major industry, it’s actually a pretty remarkable story,” he says of the success they’d had up to that point remediating the property. “But I really was expecting a ‘Nice try guys, but you missed the boat.’ ”

Instead, the Corps helped others in the town take the agency’s efforts more seriously. “They legitimized what we were doing and reinforced the potential to the larger region.” In fact, Nugent says the deal they ultimately struck—to sell the land to the Mohegan Tribe so it could expand the recreational offerings at its nearby casino—came out of interviews Consulting Corps convened.

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Bon Air, Va., hasn’t progressed as much in the redevelopment process as Preston and Fairborn, but the church’s rector, the Rev. Jeunee Godsey, says conversations fostered by Consulting Corps’ visit last February helped bring interested parties to the table. “The CRE process raised the awareness of what was going on here through the wider community,” she says. St. Michael’s sprawling campus had been emptying out after a school that had been using space there moved to a new campus. Church leaders are still in the process of gathering proposals and seeking ideas from the community about how the space might be used. But they’ve already generated new income from a nearby school and local field hockey club, both of which are currently renting space. “I don’t think we would be as far along as we are if they hadn’t come. We have a path forward now.”

Facing the Future

It can be hard for institutions and municipalities to see beyond their own history. That was the case in Milledgeville, Ga., where Central State Hospital, which had been the state’s largest mental institution, was the primary economic driver for decades. As the state shifted residents to other settings and left more and more of the massive campus deserted, some in the town of about 19,000 residents were ready to reenvision the space. Others weren’t. When members of Consulting Corps visited in October 2014, they were able to move the conversation away from the “illusion” that the state would someday reopen the hospital, says Mike Couch, executive director of the site’s redevelopment authority. He says Corps members encouraged the community to “stop talking about what you had, and look at what [new companies] you have—isn’t that your industry now?”

Through public-private partnerships, redevelopment has brought 550 jobs to the area so far. Some of those jobs came from the state, which expanded mental health and veterans affairs services there, but the campus has also attracted tech firms and a commercial food production company. The community has brought in $107 million in new construction spending since July 2013 and about $350,000 in additional tax revenue each year since the 2016 fiscal year.

Corps members can also help religious institutions gain efficiency by connecting them with nonprofits and others. “Church buildings are often underutilized during the week,” Godsey says.

Part of Consulting Corps’ mission is to help St. Michael’s focus on the future of the church. “They were definitely thinking about things that we would not have thought of, helping us to clarify some of our own goals and raise our sights,” Godsey says, noting that the Corps helped them see the downside of having to manage the property in perpetuity. “Buildings and grounds can be albatrosses unless they are stewarded well. We were having to spend limited staff time and energy on taking care of buildings rather than doing our mission as a church.”

Fresh Set of Eyes

While the projects vary, beneficiaries of the Corps’ efforts universally express gratitude for the volunteers’ dedication to understanding their communities. “I’d be surprised if they slept more than five hours a night with the amount of work that was being done,” Nugent says. “There were a lot of ‘aha!’ moments, and I think it’s produced a cascade effect across the region.”

Volunteers also get a great deal in return from the time they’ve put in. Kathleen Rose, CRE, president and CEO of Rose & Associates Southeast Inc. in Davidson, N.C., loves the variety of problems she’s able to tackle in Consulting Corps and appreciates the opportunity to “get outside the box.” Her volunteer experiences have helped her business back home, too. During a 2014 Corps project in Philadelphia, for example, Rose took notes on how developers there differentiated the often-overlooked places between urban and suburban markets to attract more interest from residents and investors. “I brought that back to the Carolinas in terms of the work I do,” she says.

Fred Campbell, CRE, president and CEO of The Cascade Group LLC in Monona, Wis., agrees that the new point of view he gains through volunteering helps him spot possible deals in his own backyard. “You can drive past a site for years and never pay attention to it. Is that a good opportunity for somebody?” he says. Campbell, part of the Corps since 2001, also works to pass along these perspectives to others in his local real estate community, recalling his mentorship of a graduate student interested in sustainable development. Campbell used his Corps experience to convince the young entrepreneur that the greenest option would be repurposing an existing building, rather than new construction.

“You plant the seed,” Campbell says, “and it bears fruit.”

Related