|New roads lead to land rush
by Nora Edinger
Land prices along the region's major highways are beginning to reflect the nation's red-hot economy, according to area experts.
In the late 1990s, the Clarksburg land that is now Newpointe shopping center was purchased by THF Clarksburg Development I, LLC. According to Harrison County deed records, just four of the 28 tracts went for more than $4 million. In addition to a Super Wal-Mart, the company is now leasing that land and buildings it developed to a wide variety of strip mall and free-standing stores.
According to the same county records, Dr. Saad Mossallati of Bridgeport paid $2.5 million in December for 125 acres of undeveloped land near the Saltwell Road exit of I-79. That parcel is now among a handful under consideration as the site of a new United Hospital Center complex, a possibility that could net Mossallati a healthy profit.
In April of this year, state Sen. Mike Ross of Randolph County paid nearly $400,000 for a two-acre Corridor H property and building formerly owned by Columbia Gas, according to Upshur County deed records. Ross, who said he regularly buys and develops land, wants to lease the building and land but has so far found no takers.
Those prices and scenarios are about par for the course locally, according to Michael Castle, a commercial real estate expert with Petroplus & Associates Inc.'s Morgantown office.
"The road to nowhere eventually becomes the road to somewhere -- all the time," Castle said of the driving force behind much of the local big-ticket land swaps. He sees continuing development along I-79 and the completion of Corridor H as price inflaters.
Who are the buyers? Castle said there are those who plan a specific use, such as THF and Petroplus' sister organization, Platinum Properties, which owns such properties as Eastpointe shopping center in Clarksburg and is developing Waterfront Place in downtown Morgantown. There are various kinds of developer/speculators, such as Mossallati and Ross, as well.
"There are also land speculation people who just buy ground and try to hold it (until a sale)," he added.
Cash flow issues
One way these purist speculators create cash flow is to take out loans against the value of one property to buy another, Castle said. Sometimes, such debt can be good, especially big debt on big properties. For example, even if a speculator is paying $100,000 debt service per year on a $1 million property, if he or she can sell the property five years later for $5 million, there is still a hefty profit.
"Real estate is a very long-term investment," Castle said. "Real estate is not a dot.com."
However, he said most big-ticket land purchasers are development minded. They want the revenue from lease agreements to pay off the debt and make money.
Maintaining a financial reserve may also be a necessity for big land holders, according to Lewis County Assessor R. Gary Smith.
"What properties that have sold, they spike," Smith said of sale prices on Lewis land along I-79 and Corridor H. "I think the (old Lewis family) landowners that have these properties are sitting on them hoping the spike will continue to go up."
Unfortunately for some owners, property tax assessments are following the same spikes, he added of the need for a certain amount of wealth to hold onto such properties.
"We do a re-evaluation of property assessments every three years. After you get a sale or two you have to look at the surrounding properties," Smith said, adding many properties are still selling in the $25,000-$30,000 per acre range. "Taxes go up."
While most Lewis County highway land is in a holding pattern, Smith believes the extension of sewer and water lines along Corridor H will cause a land-sale explosion.
That is already happening in Upshur County, according to Assessor Helen Philipps.
"There's a service station, the manufactured homes place, the truck wash," Philipps said, ticking off summer 2000 developments.
When Ross was growing up in a family of 14 in a mining company house in Coalton, he never suspected he would be purchasing $400,000 tracts of highway land.
"I speculate a lot on land. I've bought land over the telephone that I haven't even seen," said Ross, who now owns an oil and gas company and has timber and coal interests. "It's a hobby."
Ross considers himself a classic speculator and said he has the investor stomach to handle the bad buys, as in a mineral rights purchase that turned out to be under the Sutton Dam.
"I believe land is the basis of all wealth," Ross said. "But, you've got to be able to be a loser every once in a while if you want to speculate."
One of his more successful ventures was a two-acre Weston property he bought in speculation of future Corridor H development. It is now leased to a Sheetz.
"When I bought that land, Wal-Mart wasn't there and I didn't know they were coming," he said.
Mossallati said his pleasure in real estate as an investment form is similar.
"The reason I bought (the I-79 land) was to develop a hotel and conference center," he said of his intent before the sale of the land to UHC became a possibility.
If neither prospect materializes, he plans to develop and then subdivide the land for sale. In other endeavors, he has developed and now leases outlying office space near UHC, Medwood Plaza in Nutter Fort, and a number of businesses behind Sam's Club Members Only in Fairmont.
Castle said Platinum Properties does not speculate. All of its developments are geared toward specific lease clients, with the possible exception of Waterfront Place in Morgantown. That development will house a number of West Virginia University offices but some aspects remain semi-speculative.
THF asset manager Andy Boyd said that national company, which according to the West Virginia Secretary of State's office was originally organized under Jamestown, LLC of Bridgeport, does not speculate at all. With more than 15 million square feet of retail space stretched from coast to coast, THF is in the business of buying land, developing it and leasing it out.
"If we have a piece of property we're going to be doing something with it," Boyd said. "We don't hold property."
While many of the St. Louis, Mo.-based company's holdings are along highways, Boyd added that West Virginia commercial land has always been pricey.
"The property that you can make flat and that has utilities is scarce," Boyd said, noting Newpointe is built on 80 feet of fill.
Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403 or by e-mail at email@example.com.