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By air and by sea

Infrastructure properties bring unique considerations for real estate managers

By Journal of Property Management
Port San Antonio’s conceptual rendering of the upcoming vertiport, which could accommodate traditional winged aircraft and a new generation of passenger electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVOLs). Photo courtesy of Port San Antonio.
Port San Antonio’s conceptual rendering of the upcoming vertiport, which could accommodate traditional winged aircraft and a new generation of passenger electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVOLs). Photo courtesy of Port San Antonio.

Retail, residential, office, and industrial property management often get the spotlight. But marinas, airports, railway stations, and other transportation hubs also have real estate managers overseeing their smooth operations. These infrastructure properties, as they’re often called, come with unique sets of considerations, setting them apart from other asset types.

Milwaukee-based Founders 3 is one management company that develops and manages marinas and airfields, in addition to other commercial real estate assets. Along with numerous airports, Founders 3 operates about 30 marinas, including one it owns.

David Behnke, CPM®, Founders 3

David Behnke, CPM®, principal of management services for Founders 3, says managing these properties requires a special skill set.

For marinas, Behnke says there’s a learning curve to get up to speed and understand some of the unique characteristics, such as seawalls, piers, and walls for wave attenuation. “It’s a lot different than brick-and-mortar,” he says.

Airports, on the other hand, do have many buildings, from offices to hangars, which require their own unique maintenance.

Meeting regulations

Because you’re dealing with vehicles in the air and on water, infrastructure properties have various regulatory bodies overseeing the operations, and property managers must be attuned to a host of regulations. When managing airports, you must comply with rules set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the local governing bodies, Behnke says. Counties or port authorities may own regional airports, so you must have a strong relationship with these entities.

One unique infrastructure property is Port San Antonio, a technology innovation campus with a railport and airfield it shares with the United States Air Force. Located on the site of Texas’ historic Kelly Air Force Base, which served as the military’s primary center for aircraft maintenance in the 1940s, Port San Antonio covers more than 1,900 acres with 13 million square feet of assets spread out over 300-plus buildings. Customers include aerospace giants like Boeing as well as cybersecurity and tech start-ups.

Adrienne Cox, Port San Antonio

When Kelly closed in 2001, the still-active Lackland Air Force Base absorbed half of the property. The other half is now Port San Antonio’s property. “Lackland now owns, operates, and maintains the runway and control tower operations,” says Adrienne Cox, chief operating officer of Port San Antonio. “They set the rules, and our customers, like Boeing, have access to the airfield through a joint-use agreement, which we must understand and adhere to explicitly.” For example, there are specific ways to cut the grass, and crews must obtain training and safety clearance to complete the work.

East Kelly Railport uses about 350 acres of Port San Antonio’s property. The Port acts as property manager, but a separate transportation services company oversees the railway operations, such as rail switching and the offloading of commodities. “We manage that relationship and ensure safety,” Cox says. “We are bounded by two neighborhoods, so we have strict qualifications for what can pass through.”

Behnke adds that, because of government oversight, infrastructure properties are much more budget-oriented and capital improvement-driven on an annual basis. “You’re dealing with many serious deadlines that can’t be moved,” he says. “You can’t be late in getting your budget done because the governor, the county executive, or the mayor is looking for this information.”

Managing the properties

These unique physical characteristics and legal regulations are two of the biggest considerations when managing an infrastructure property.

To maintain its vast property, Port San Antonio has a team of five property managers and their assistants, maintenance technicians, building engineers, a facilities team, and a landscaping crew.

“It takes an army to manage 1,900 acres,” says Cox. “And you have to be nimble. There are many different lease structures that exist, such as General Services Administration (GSA) and Air Force leasebacks, so you must be willing to roll up your sleeves and do some homework on the specific customer needs.”

In the marina business, successful property managers have a hospitality mindset. High-end marinas that cater to expensive, privately owned boats operate like a high-class hotel or another concierge-type service, Behnke says. “We try to deliver white-glove service,” he says. “People want to go out on their boat and then go home. They expect a good time, and we want to deliver on this. This might mean readying their beers, wine, or sandwiches, or cleaning or fueling their boat.”

Even in areas where marinas close for the season, such as in Wisconsin or Minnesota, property managers work year-round, closing up for the colder months and then getting everything ready for the following year.

Managing an airport is similar to overseeing a marina, except for the coordination of touchdowns and take-offs. “It’s very hands-on,” Behnke says. “Along with dealing with different regulations, another difference from marinas is that airports have fixed-base operations for repairing or fueling planes, whereas marinas may have vendors coming to take care of people’s boats.”

Industry outlook

F3 Marina Fort Lauderdale answers the need for more boat slips. Photo courtesy of Founders 3.

This is an exciting time to manage an infrastructure property. During the COVID-19 pandemic, boat sales soared, but the number of available slips didn’t follow suit. Because of environmental protection plans in place, the number of slips in a particular area is limited. Creatively addressing this problem, Founders 3 has developed the F3 Marina Fort Lauderdale, a fully automated dry stack facility, which can put a boat away in about four and a half minutes, storing them vertically 130 feet high. “ It’s essentially a vending machine for boats. It’s really high-tech,” he says. To be financially and personally fulfilled managing marinas, Behnke suggests overseeing at least 200 slips.

Aircraft innovations also make this an exciting time for infrastructure property management. At Port San Antonio, a multi-story tower with a research complex for space-based exploration and a commercial vertiport to host the next generation of aircraft are in the works. These aircraft are expected to be electric, with vertical takeoff and landing.

Behnke, who made the jump from managing large office buildings to marinas and airports, says this is an incredibly rewarding career choice.

“In the marina business, you’re dealing with happy people,” he says. “They are smiling because they get to go out on their boat, and you get to work out in the sun by the water. What’s not to like?”

Journal of Property Management

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