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Billionaire Jeff Greene and others key in on challenges facing West Palm Beach

“We have to get the human capital that will build business:” Jeff Greene.
 

While West Palm Beach is a city on the rise, it still faces plenty of challenges.

That was the message delivered at Bisnow’s real estate conference on West Palm Wednesday by the city’s dominant real estate investor, billionaire Jeff Greene; Mayor Jeri Muoio; and Angelo Bianco, managing director at real estate investment and management firm Crocker Partners.

Ironically, it was Muoio, not Greene, who complained about restraints on development. “We have limited development space downtown,” she said. “We have some folks who want a continuation of West Palm Beach as a sleepy town.” While the city’s leadership has embraced change, not everyone else has, she explained.

Greene sees local demographics as a problem. “How do we attract a large population of people with money to spend?” he asked. “Now we have Palm Beach and [the type of people at this conference] who can afford all the nice restaurants and stores. But most people here are struggling.”

The fact that tourism and retirees are the city’s main industries represents a problem, Greene said. That means the jobs generated will be for low wage positions such as waiters and parking attendants.

“They don’t get paid enough for the rent I need to charge in my buildings — $2,500 a month” for a two-bedroom apartment, Greene said. “We need a higher demographic to support the growth we want.”

Greene recently decided to shelve, at least temporarily, a couple of apartment projects he planned for the downtown area. That’s because rents are stagnant, and he is concerned about demand amid an onslaught of new supply in the area.

Bianco said attracting more young people is important. “To get to the next level we need to make West Palm Beach a place where young people think of going into business,” he said. “When [top] people graduate from college, West Palm isn’t on their list.”

The city needs to encourage more of an entrepreneurial spirit, Bianco maintained. “Perhaps we can work on an incubator space,” he said. “Maybe Jeff Greene could start a mentoring program so that when people graduate from college, we become a special place.”

Greene and Muoio both pointed to the need for a better educational system. “People will come here when it’s excellent,” she said. She’s hopeful that the county school superintendent, Robert Avossa, will lead an improvement.

As for higher education, the percentage of the population with Ph.D.s is low in West Palm, and that’s what brings business, Muoio said. “How does our university system become more attractive?”

Greene agreed on the need to elevate local colleges. Echoing Bianco’s point, he also said it’s important to make West Palm Beach attractive to young people from the area who go to top colleges elsewhere so that they will come back afterward. “We have to get the human capital that will build business,” he said.

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