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November 2007
Strategic Planning for Smart Growth
By Janet Kropinak

     During the ’90s Charlotte was already well on its way to becoming a thriving local economy, and its leaders were working hard to position the city for its rapid growth. It necessitated foresight and strategic planning to ensure that the approach to growth was intelligent and that the result would be a success.

     As the presence and complexity of the financial services industries in Charlotte grew, bringing talent into the region, so did the demand for real estate expertise. In an increasingly sophisticated business market, it became important to have a source of practical and academic research in the field, as well as higher education at the graduate level in real estate finance and development.

     To meet these growing demands, then UNC Charlotte Chancellor Jim Woodward, developer John Crosland, and other leaders from the real estate and financial services community came together in a determined fashion to endow and establish the Center for Real Estate within the Belk College of Business at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

     In 1999, Dr. Steven Ott was chosen as the Crosland Professor and handed the task of developing the Center for Real Estate’s program into one that would be mutually beneficial for the university as well as the business community.


Smart Planning

     Ott was quick to recognize the expertise that was located in UNC Charlotte’s backyard, partnering with local industry leaders to form an advisory board for the educational and research activities of the Center. The board members’ participation, both inside and outside the classroom, enhances research and educational activities as well as the student’s overall educational experience.

     “The advisory board has been extremely helpful in advising the Center and helping us develop the program,” comments Ott. “We’ve worked hard to bring together government, industry and academia to develop the initiatives that we have moved forward through the Center.”

     “A lot of work that the Center is involved in is very insightful in terms of dealing with the challenges that come with being part of a vibrant economy,” comments Todd Mansfield, chairman/CEO of Crosland and an active board member. “Charlotte is cutting edge in many respects, especially when you look at real estate and community building. We offer both an attractive location and a fabulous laboratory for the research Steve and the Center are doing.”

     The Center has played an instrumental role in Charlotte’s growth and success. Noting that fast growth can be difficult to plan for, Ott gives credit to Charlotte’s leaders for being cognizant of the issues they are facing.

     “The city is very aware and working very hard to do the best they can to maintain a good quality of life,” comments Ott. “There are a lot of issues, which makes the Center so important serving as an outlet for studying these issues.”

     One issue, Ott notes, is the growing traffic dilemma. “I think traffic is going to continue to be an issue for some time. The City is trying to address this through mass transit but I don’t think that this will be the sole solution. I’d like to see them work more with state government for proper funding for roads and infrastructure in this region. I think that we are neglected as a region in this regard when it comes to state funding.”

     Another area Ott feels should be kept on the forefront is the public schools, noting that a high caliber public school system is essential for a good quality of life. “We did a study on the development of public schools to try to figure out other ways that we could get not only city and state money but also private sector money and expertise involved in building schools,” comments Ott. This study was funded privately, but was intended to be used as a resource for public officials.

     Despite certain challenges, being in Charlotte has been a tremendous advantage for both Belk College and the Center. “Just being in this city is a strength overall. So many students want to live and work here, as do faculty members,” notes Ott. “Right now, Charlotte is a great recruiting tool.”

     This sentiment is shared by Belk College students as well. “The business climate of Charlotte creates an immense sense of optimism for the future. In my opinion there’s no better place in America to be in the real estate business,” comments Travis Stowers, a Belk college graduate and assistant vice president at Wells Fargo.

     Ott says Charlotte’s appeal often continues past graduation. “This market tends to absorb a lot of our students. Once they are here, they tend to want to stay,” he says. “The school and the city are getting a great return on their investment. Hopefully our graduates are going to be the leaders in the industry in 10 years.”


The Program

     The Center has three areas of focus: curriculum, research and service. The curriculum encompasses the real estate finance and development concentration at the M.B.A. level. The concentration combines the graduate level business education provided by the Belk College M.B.A. program with courses that specialize in real estate. This is designed to give students a solid understanding of the real estate process and give them the educational foundation and necessary skills to become the future industry leaders.

     At any given time there are 35 to 40 students who are enrolled under the Center, making it one of the largest concentrations within Belk College. One of the primary goals for the Center is the development of a Master of Science in Real Estate. This will be a one year, full-time program that targets students from various backgrounds such as engineering, architecture and geography.

     “Steve has done a fantastic job of engaging the real estate community,” comments board member Frank Spencer, president of Cogdell Spencer Advisors. “I think it is so important to Charlotte that UNC Charlotte is providing not just education but also research and intellectual support of industries. They have made a significant contribution to the city with the research that they have released.”

     In partnership with the advisory board the Center is constantly striving to find new ways to connect students with the business community. It is this real world experience that helps both Belk College and the Center stand out among other graduate programs.

     “Dr. Ott does an outstanding job in making a connection between the Center and the business community and it had a tremendously positive impact on my overall experience within the real estate concentration,” notes Brent Royall, who graduated from Belk with a real estate and finance concentration and is a senior vice president at Keystone Partners LLC. “Support for the real estate program from affiliated companies with the Charlotte community is amazing—I attribute that connection and support primarily to Dr. Ott’s leadership and tireless effort.”

     Another area of focus for the Center is facilitating practical and academic research on real estate topics of concern to the real estate community.

     Research topics are generally focused around public policy and economic issues. The Center completed an economic study within Charlotte’s inner city corridors as well as studies on tax incremental financing, transfer taxes and impact fees, focusing on how each affect the real estate market.

     Todd Mansfield echoes the importance of research, “I think there is a real opportunity for the Center to enhance the caliber of research in the field, especially in terms of public policy, as well as facilitate creating quality professional candidates for the industry and the region.”

     Service is the third focus of the Center’s program, which includes lectures through the Urban Land Institute. These lectures are geared toward public officials to educate them on how developers evaluate real estate projects, helping them to decipher and understand what each side wants out of a transaction and working toward making that happen.

     With a program laid out, and an abundance of local resources at their disposal, it is evident that the Center has only begun to tap its full potential.


Expanding the Scope

     Ott’s success with the Center for Real Estate no doubt played a factor in UNC Charlotte’s decision earlier this year to appoint him interim dean of Belk College. Ott is excited about his new role and sees real estate as the perfect foray into his new position.

     “My background has been very helpful. A dean has to be is very connected with the community, especially at a school like this, in a city like this,” comments Ott. “The business of real estate covers so many industries that, in order to build this program, I’ve needed to become very connected to the community. Now as interim dean, I am expanding my scope and working to connect with the leaders of the other business industries.”

     Ott understands the importance of Belk College to the region, noting that the University’s connections to the city and the business community are mutually beneficial.

     Because he has only stepped in as interim dean, Ott is staying focused on what he can do in the here and now. The College is currently in the midst of hiring new professors, as they are constantly searching for the best and brightest from around the country.

     The College would also like to enhance their online program which would make classes more accessible for working students. Increasing online capabilities will also help strengthen the global connections the College currently has. Additionally, Ott would like to enhance their partnerships with business schools in other countries which would allow more students the opportunity to incorporate overseas studying into their education.

     Another focus for Ott is on creating a full-time M.B.A. program, though he admits this isn’t going to happen overnight. Currently, about three-quarters of the Belk College students attend classes part time while working full-time in the region.

     The college is also working to strengthen its already strong presence Uptown, which will be aided by UNC Charlotte’s new building in 2010.

     Ott has many other long term goals for the college as well, including an expansion of the graduate curriculum offerings, including Ph.D. programs. Currently there is one Ph.D. program within the college and a second will be added in the near future. “Graduate and Ph.D. programs are extremely important to the business school and to the community, and the direction of the university is to become more of a graduate and research-oriented institution.”


The Future of the Center

     Ott promises to keep a strong emphasis on the Center for Real Estate. “I want to continue to see the program flourish and prosper. It’s a big part of the College and it will remain a strong focus going forward.”

     The advisory board has also made a commitment to helping the Center grow. “I believe with finance, banking and real estate playing such a large role in our community that we need to strive to have a full-time program. And when we get to that level, with full-time graduate students and the research and community interface, I believe UNC Charlotte will vie to be one of the preeminent real estate programs in the country,” comments Frank Spencer.

     In terms of goals for the Center, Ott doesn’t hold back when listing his ambitions. “I would really like to see this program grow to be the premier real estate program in the Southeast. When people think about the major players in real estate education and research, they think of MIT in the Northeast and USC and Berkeley on the West coast. When they think of the Southeast, I want them to think of us.”

     Like the city of Charlotte, the College’s and the Center’s leaders are working hard to position themselves for growth over the next 5 to 10 years. “We are well on our way to achieving this status. We just have to maintain the momentum we have going and continue building upon it.

     That is the way to attract the very best students who will eventually stay here and add to the talent pool we have going in the industry,” notes Ott.

     And whether it is under the title of director or dean, you can be sure that Ott’s commitment won’t change. “I am permanently and emotionally attached to the school and I am proud to be a part of it,” he says sincerely.

Janet Kropinak is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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