$19 Million Buys Piece of Billion-Dollar Mile & More in Benton County

by George Waldon  on Monday, Mar. 12, 2012 12:00 am  

Johnny Kincaid, left, and Charles Martin of Little Rock?s Whisenhunt Investment Group. (Photo by Michael Pirnique)

Joe Whisenhunt watched and waited for an opportunity to enter the northwest Arkansas market for years. The commercial developer's patience and savvy timing culminated in a recent $19 million deal for 375 acres along Benton County's Interstate 540 corridor.

At an average cost of less than $1.25 per SF for improved but vacant commercial land, the all-cash acquisition represents a cost-basis bargain of epic proportions. Whisenhunt and others involved with the sale declined to confirm or talk about the purchase price of this truly big deal.

"It's the most significant land transaction since the bubble burst," said Ramsay Ball, commercial real estate broker with the Bentonville office of Colliers International. "I can't think of anything like it. It's part of the shake-up. There's a lot of land on the market that is still priced too high, and to sell, it's got to be priced right. This is an exceptional deal."

The transaction is actually a series of deals between affiliates of Whisenhunt Investment Group of Little Rock and Bank of America. The sales clear property from the lender's portfolio of OREO - "other real estate owned" - and bring new life to long-dormant commercial sites.

The land involves pieces of the famed Billion-Dollar Mile along I-540 in Rogers and includes 22 acres in Lowell at a proposed interchange. That potential change to traffic patterns is somewhere out in the future and dependent on, among other things, the potential impact of stormwater drainage on the habitat of the Ozark Cavefish.

(More on the Land: Whisenhunt snapped up prime property once controlled by Bill Schwyhart, Charles Reaves and Gary Brandon, who were overwhelmed by debt.)

From Whisenhunt's perspective, the Benton County real estate market is poised to rebound, and future changes in the development landscape presented by the new interchange only sweeten the possibilities.

"That's why we wanted to get our stakes in the ground and get established up there," he said. "We've already had three or four knowledgeable investors who heard we had the property under contract and wanted to buy it from us."

His vision for the property is to keep most of the land as a legacy holding and strike build-to-suit or ground-lease deals with end users. Marked for sale are 39 residential lots associated with The Grove, an ill-fated project led by Fayetteville developer Gary Brandon.

Patience - and No Debt

The lots, on either side of Dixieland Road and the south side of West Laurel Avenue, are at the north end of 119 acres purchased by Wisenhunt. The property extends south to Pleasant Grove Road and the once rural Pleasant Grove Cemetery.

(Map: Click to see a PDF map of the properties.)

The land is one of three blocks of property Whisenhunt acquired that former ownership groups forfeited or lost through foreclosure to Bank of America. The all-cash component of the deal positions Wisenhunt Investment Group to maintain a debt-free, long-term hold.

"That's important, whereas many developers have a bank to appease," said Johnny Kincaid, chief operating officer at WIG. "We don't. We have patience and the ability to wait for the right opportunity and not succumb to external pressures. Debt service is certainly one of them."

At 192 acres, holdings once controlled by Charles Reaves represent the biggest piece of the Whisenhunt acquisition puzzle. This commercial land includes property in front of a Wal-Mart Supercenter and four small parcels along Pleasant Grove Road in the north. The largest swath of the property extends south between I-540 and Dixieland Road from Pleasant Crossing Boulevard to Oakwood Avenue in Lowell.

The Whisenhunt land already is the beneficiary of an estimated $10 million worth of infrastructure improvements in the form of utilities, water/sewer and street work that includes curbs and gutters. Kincaid believes bust-adjusted land costs and values will help accelerate the rebound of development activity in Benton County.

"We think the next 10 years will be even more dynamic because of the recasting of cost basis," he said.

The last piece of the Whisenhunt purchase is 64 acres assembled by the Pinnacle Partners and lost through foreclosure by two of its former partners, Bill Schwyhart and Robert Thornton.

Most of the land (54 acres) is at the southwest corner of I-540 and Pauline Whitaker Parkway, a nod to a former owner of the property. The remaining 10 acres is on the west side of Champs Drive, north of the entryway to the gated, golf-course neighborhood of Pinnacle Hills.

"It's a great play, a great opportunity," said Ball, who helped broker the deal. "Everyone's been waiting for the dam to break in northwest Arkansas. I think the dam broke here.

"It will be interesting to see what effect this deal has on the market. This might represent the bottom of the market."



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