Sacramento Bee - September 24, 2009
As the California economy roared in the 1990s and tax revenues poured into a treasury overseen by Gov. Pete Wilson, the state laid plans for a series of new office buildings in Sacramento to spare itself from paying rent to other landlords.
Barely a decade later, the Schwarzenegger administration is launching a process to sell many of the same buildings that were originally touted as long-term money savers for taxpayers. The goal today is more immediate: pay off debt and steer cash into the state's depleted general fund. It's among a variety of short-term crisis solutions that include selling surplus state property, moves also being undertaken in cash-strapped Arizona.
In California, 11 state-owned sites with an estimated value of almost $2 billion will be listed for sale in early 2010 to pay off about $1.4 billion in bonds and net another $600 million "to support other critical state government programs," said state Department of General Services spokesman Eric Lamoureux.
The state wouldn't move out of the buildings; it would continue to lease them from the new owners.
The sell-off has lit up the skies for brokers in an otherwise downcast office real estate sector, where few buildings are being bought, sold or even listed, especially in Sacramento. It's likewise called fresh attention to the state's battered finances and stirred banter about whether it's smart to sell long-term real estate assets for short-term goals in a weak market.
Many in the real estate industry acknowledge it's a close call, but believe "beautiful class A" state buildings with a single tenant will command premium prices.
"It's unfortunate they would sell them. But they definitely have a need for financing right now, for equity to solve this budget crisis," said Tom Aguer, president of Sacramento-based commercial real estate brokers Aguer Havelock Associates. "It's a very creative way for them to fix their problem. But in the long term, these are great assets."
Brokers like Aguer and others among the nation's leading real estate firms are already assembling proposals and lining up national teams to broker the sales. The state is demanding an experienced partner: a firm that has done five separate deals of $20 million or more in the past seven years, and at least $150 million in total deals in that span.
No one can calculate for certain the fees such a deal could bring a brokerage firm. But it's widely said in the industry that the higher the price, the lower the commission. Even a commission as low as one-quarter of 1 percent of almost $2 billion in sales could net a firm nearly $5 million.
Specifically, the state is proposing a so-called "sale/leaseback" deal in which buyers of state buildings would rent them to the state afterward.
"We intend to maintain 100 percent occupancy in the buildings just as we have today," said Lamoureux, whose department manages state buildings. "We're just looking to sell the property and lease back over an extended term, probably along the line of 20 years or so."
Brokers say the lease-back provision is likely to stir interest among risk-averse investors known in the trade as "coupon clippers." Those are big institutional investors such as pension funds and insurance companies.
"There are numerous buyers looking for single-tenant buildings with the long-term leases. It's a steady income. It's a low-risk deal," said Nico Coulouras, vice president in Sacramento for Lowe Enterprises, a Los Angeles-based development and investment firm.
Among the state complexes proposed for sale are some of Sacramento's biggest buildings and most distinctive landmarks: downtown's massive East End Complex next to Capitol Park, finished in 2003; the 17-story Attorney General Building on I Street, completed in 1995; and the sprawling 1.8 million-square-foot campus of the Franchise Tax Board, expanded earlier this decade at the city's eastern edge.
Elsewhere, fixtures of the Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles skylines – bearing names of politicians from Ronald Reagan to Hiram Johnson – will also be sold.
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