There’s a huge demand for commercial real estate in Florida right now, and Christian Yepes, president of Belleair Development Group, doesn’t see it slowing down anytime soon.
That’s a positive for Belleair, a Largo-based development powerhouse that’s completed more than 300 commercial and residential projects, including the Pinellas County South County service center, housing the tax collector and property appraisers offices at 2500 34th St. N. in St. Petersburg, that opened in August.
“We’ve got six deals in the city limits of St. Pete right now, three other deals in Pinellas Park, three in Largo. We’ve got about 30 projects going on right now in active development,” Yepes said.
Belleair is a family owned firm, started by Christian Yepes’ father, Carlos Yepes, in 1997. Christian joined in late 2007, just before a market downturn. Post-2007, real estate values plummeted, foreclosures escalated and lending standards got tougher.
Christian Yepes said it was a lesson in real life.
“I got to see that we could still do deals in a really rough environment if the fundamentals were there. I got to see that first hand. So rather than starting in 2004 or 2005 where you could throw a dart at the wall and make the deal work, you really had to make the deal work properly to do anything at that point,” Yepes said. “That was a great opportunity for me to work with my father and learn from his experience and grow the company with him. I became a partner in 2011 and as the market began to shift and turn, we have not taken our foot off the gas pedal since then.”
Belleair’s core business is single-tenant freestanding retail development — fast food, banks and gas stations. Projects with one tenant are easier to manage from inception to completion, Yepes said. “You can own a Wawa and a bank and a fast food restaurant, and you don’t have to deal with maintenance because the tenant takes care of that.”
The company also has developed a small number of strip shopping centers as well as a fair number of medical and office projects. It has worked with strategic partners in the multi-family space. Earlier this month, Belleair broke ground on its own multi-family development, a 240-unit apartment complex on 32 acres at Washington Street and Alto Avenue in Port Richey in Pasco County.
Florida’s continued population growth makes for a stable market that attracts dry powder, or investment funding that’s looking to be deployed.
“There’s a lot of money chasing stability at the moment and there’s a huge demand for commercial real estate in the current economic environment,” Yepes said.
The company has done some projects around Florida and a few projects out of state, but most of the company’s work is in Pinellas County and the greater Tampa Bay area, within a two-hour drive from St. Petersburg.
“It’s a very stable area for retail because it’s so dense from a population standpoint. There are a lot of companies that want to come to this area, so we don’t have to try that hard to sell Pinellas County or Tampa Bay to potential retailers wanting to come into Florida. It’s already identified as a target market,” Yepes said. “Being a tenant-driven development company, we go where the tenants want to go. It just so happens that we live here and we’re able to do a lot of deals in this area because we know it so well.”
While ecommerce has cut into brick-and-mortar sales nationally, most of Belleair’s portfolio — restaurants, gas stations, service companies such as hair or nail salons — provide goods and services that generally are not available online.
“We were feeling pretty good about that. Then Covid was declared a pandemic and we were instantly hit in the face with stacks of letters from tenants who were forced to shut down and it revealed itself very quickly, that there’s our exposure,” he said. “It was shocking how easily everything was shut down and all of a sudden, tenants had no way to generate sales.”
Belleair was fortunate to have great tenants, Yepes said.
“We lost a few, but not many, across all of our properties. We had to think through some creative solutions on how to make it through that time with the tenants,” he said.
Belleair is a values-based company that is focused on making a positive impact.
“If I were to say what’s the most important to us by far it’s our faith, No. 1. We look at what and how we develop as being responsible stewards with what we’ve been entrusted with,” Yepes said.
The company’s website includes a reference to a biblical verse from Colossians that says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord and not for man.”
“A lot of time religious companies or Christian companies get a bad rap for saying things that aren’t politically correct, but at the end of the day that’s the standard by which I live my life. If you’re not OK with that, that’s fine, but that’s the standard I want you to hold me to,” Yepes said.
That strategy drives the type of development Belleair takes on. Yepes said he’s concerned about whether a project is good for the community.
“One of the litmus tests I use when considering a tenant to work with is — is it appropriate to bring kids into that establishment? If it’s not, there’s a very high probability I’m not doing that deal,” he said.
Because Belleair holds its properties for the long term, Yepes wants tenants to know they are doing business with a faith-based, family-based company.
“I look at every deal we do not so much by how much rent will be generated but by how many lives will be impacted. The surveyors, the engineers, the planners, the architects, all the trades, the electricians, roofers, and plumbers — every piece of the puzzle is someone who is able to put food on the table because of a decision we made to start a project,” he said. “Then you finish the project and you have long-term jobs created at that project. That’s what excites me. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. Not the rent check.”
Not every decision is easy or popular, Yepes said. When the company takes on a project that results in residents being displaced, Belleair works with each family or individual to establish a relocation plan and helps with moving expenses, he said.
“That’s the part people don’t see. They just see a big bad developer coming in and clearing out a park,” he said. “There are tough decisions we have to make, but at the end of the day, we’re people too and we try to make the best decision for the most amount of people that we can.”