Businessman sees potential in Marion County
Benjamin Leon has been buying up land despite the sagging market.
Benjamin Leon leaned across his desk at his 647-acre farm off U.S. 441 last week and counted off on his fingers the ingredients of a good real estate deal.
“It’s when preparation meets opportunity and then you get lucky,” said the former Cuban refugee, who fled to Florida with his parents 50 years ago. “It’s not just luck.”
“And buy low and sell high,” he said, smiling.
During the past two years, when many in the skittish commercial real estate market stopped investing, the 66-year-old Leon started buying. This past summer he poured more than $8.5 million into two Marion County land purchases: 71 acres along Southwest 27th Avenue near 42nd Street and 51 acres along the 2900 block of Southwest 60th Avenue, near the Ocala Airport.
For the 27th Avenue purchase, he plans to build as many as 440 rental units — townhouses and apartments — in addition to office space.
He anticipates some phase of the development to begin within five years.
Leon paid about $6.5 million to Bahia Honda Real Estate Investments V LLC for the property, but said he doesn’t think about the money he is out. Instead, he thinks about the savings he made when buying the land: The property was once appraised at more than double what he paid for it.
And that brings him back to his faith in the county’s economic resilience.
The county will always be a draw to retirees and the service sector that follows them here to Florida, Leon said. In addition, it’s only a matter of time until Gainesville sees “explosive growth” southward and Ocala grows toward the north, he said.
“Ocala is in the center of everything,” he said, citing its proximity to Tampa, Orlando and Daytona Beach.
Many investors are only looking at the recent real estate downturn, he said, instead of what’s happened to Marion County real estate over the past few decades. And if investors were to look at growth here over the long haul, they would have the same faith in the county’s continued growth as he does, he said.
“No one has a crystal ball … but I think things will stabilize,” Leon said of Ocala’s economy. “I have all the faith in the world.”
Leon thinks that when the local economy starts to rebound, his property on 27th Avenue will be one of the first to benefit.
“It’s the best commercial property in Marion County,” he said.
That’s because, as Ocala’s population grows again, people will need a place to live, he said. But borrowing money to buy a home won’t be easy, he said. Banks will for many years invest their money elsewhere instead of loaning it to would-be homeowners.
“It’s going to be more difficult to realize the American dream … now,” Leon said.
And that leaves rental units as the best answer for many people looking for a roof over their heads. Leon hopes to be the person to provide it.
The property also has a good location in that it’s close to retail stores and Trinity Catholic High School.
“And you have proximity to the mall. You have proximity to Walmart. You have all the things you need,” he said. “It’s location, location, location.”
Leon looks at the 51 acres he bought from A J Barhoush MD PA profit Sharing Plan & Trust for a little more than $2 million in the same way.
“I believe things are going to happen [in that area]. I believe the Ocala [Regional] Airport will become an international airport,” he said.
Horsemen will continue to travel to the Ocala Breeders Sales Company (OBS) to buy and sell horses and use the airport to transport their horses to race tracks or their farms, he said.
He plans to build a hotel on the site, as well as storage units.
Leon admits he’s taking a risk buying the land but says it’s a calculated risk.
He points to other businesses in the area, saying there is a handful of people who also expect growth there.
“You have Walgreens and CVS on the corner of State Road 200. They’re telling me what they think of [Southwest 60th Avenue],” he said.
Leon also said he has the patience and financial resources to wait out the sluggish economy if it takes longer to rebound.
Leon made his fortune building and selling Miami health care businesses that catered to Spanish-speaking Medicare patients.
He has about 1,800 employees.
He also bought and sold real estate in Miami, but said he unloaded much of his properties before the housing collapse.
He said many who built during the real estate boom years were only speculators who rode the wave of rising prices but didn’t have the basic businesses savvy to understand the forces behind the businesses and problems just around the corner.
Leon said he could retire, but chooses to work and continue to build his businesses for his children, most of whom also work for the company, and his grandchildren.
Bartow McDonald, managing director for Sperry Van Ness/ Skye Commercial Real Estate, said Leon is representative of businessmen who see the financial potential of Marion County real estate.
McDonald said that in many cases it takes someone living outside the county to see that Marion County real estate is still a good investment.
“I think Mr. Leon is a very astute investor who is going to see a significant return on his investment,” McDonald said.
While many now avoid investing in real estate, McDonald said “Leon has the courage to act today and that is what differentiates a great entrepreneur.”