Marina broker scores big in hot South Florida market

Growing up in Fort Lauderdale loving the boating lifestyle, Julie Fisher-Berry never set out to arrange some of the biggest property deals in South Florida’s marine industry.

But following her father’s footsteps into real estate and pursuing her passion for the water, she’s developed a specialty selling marinas and boatyards that now is paying off.

Fisher-Berry this month brokered the sale of the country’s largest yacht repair-marina facility, Lauderdale Marine Center, for an estimated $140 million to $150 million. She also recently arranged the sale of marina-resort Caloosa Cove in Islamorada in the Florida Keys for a price topping $10 million.

She handles the deals through the venture she started, Marina Investments Group at real-estate conglomerate Stiles, based in Fort Lauderdale. She formed the group at Stiles Realty four years ago, recognizing opportunity as the boating industry bounced back from the recession.

Today, she sees the market “better than ever” for South Florida marine properties, as prices rise on limited supply and a growing population takes to the water. “Groups are starting to see it as a viable investment, and banking is starting to lend to it,” Fisher-Berry said in an interview at the sprawling Lauderdale Marine Center.

Yet few real-estate brokers specialize in marinas and boatyards — perhaps a handful in South Florida, said Paul Cauchi, vice president of commercial real estate at the Miami Association of Realtors.

The business is neither simple nor cookie-cutter and now demands a global outlook, Fisher-Berry said.

For starters, no two marinas or boatyards are the same. The contour of the waterfront, depth of the channel, size of the piers, types of retail and zoning rules are among elements that vary in each property, requiring in-depth knowledge to broker a sale, she said.

Then, there are the complexities of environmental regulations on the water. And building the business means forgng relationships with owners, who in South Florida are mainly families running their own businesses, and developing ties with buyers, who increasingly are based outside the area.

That variety and the chance to be outdoors — near the water and around boats — were among the reasons that Fisher-Berry found herself drawn to develop her marine specialty.

She started working in real estate three decades ago during summers while earning her degree in accounting from Nova Southeastern University and soon landed a job with Stiles leasing space in office buildings.

But when a deal came up with marinas, the water beckoned. She built on her love of boating, scuba, wake-boarding, fishing and other watersports and switched focus exclusively to marine properties, mainly in South Florida but also in the Caribbean, the U.S. northeast and other markets.

Her passion for marinas and growing database of contacts has earned Fisher-Berry praise in South Florida’s heavyweight marine industry, which has an economic impact estimated to top $8 billion yearly in Broward County alone.

“She has a good pulse on activity and good connectivity to people outside the region,” said Phil Purcell, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida.

Frank Herhold, who led the Marine Industries Association for 19 years, was so impressed by Fisher-Berry that he accepted an offer two years ago to join as a consultant in her Marina Investments Group.

Herhold said he likes the chance “to help keep marinas as marinas and boatyards as boatyards,” at a time when many waterfront properties are under pressure to be redeveloped as luxury condo towers.

In brokering the Lauderdale Marine Center deal, Fisher-Berry said some potential buyers groups inquired about building condo towers to the roughly 60-acre property on the New River visible from Interstate 95 and known for its tall arches over its docks.

But the seller held out for a buyer committed to keeping the profitable marina-boatyard operating and growing. “He was adamant about that,” said Fisher-Berry, who arranged the sale to asset management giant Carlyle Group of Washington, D.C., which also owns marina properties in the Florida Keys.

To keep Broward’s marine industry strong, Fisher-Berry hopes for marina support from neighborhood groups that back the businesses in their area and from zoning rules by local governments.

In Miami-Dade County, a coalition of businesses and neighbors helped keep part of the Miami River zoned for marinas and boatyards, while the area nearest downtown was re-zoned for high-rise condos, said broker A. Michelle Ash of Simply Marinas in Miami, who specializes in marinas. (Her firm recently brokered the sale of the Gilbert’s Resort and Marina on Key Largo for $11.2 million.)

Fisher-Berry wants marinas and boatyards strong, so future generations can enjoy the boating lifestyle the way she does. Her 16-year-old son, Alex, already is an avid boater.

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