Photo: Bradford Worthen, the vice president of commercial and business brokerage for Burlington's Pomerleau Real Estate. Photo by Katie Kittell.
Pomerleau Real Estate's vice president of commercial and business brokerage talks about the future of CommReal
by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine From the Kool-Aid stand on his folks' front lawn 'til now, when he seems to be everybody's favorite commercial real estate broker, Bradford Worthen, the vice president of commercial and business brokerage for Burlington's Pomerleau Real Estate, has proved to be the consummate salesman.
So when I wanted to know about commercial real estate in Chittenden County, my editors naturally sent me to him. And he was just the right person, turning out to be blunt, funny, energetic and in love with his job. Full of good stories, he was the possessor of an interesting insider’s perspective.
A fourth-generation Vermonter, Worthen, 68, has always had a love affair with opportunity. In broadcasting, he's done both on-air reporting and sales. He's owned business franchises. He spent two years on the lost cause of saving the Lamoille County Railroad Company. He's been a property developer. He's worked as a broker for industrial builder behemoths REM Development Co. and V/T Commercial as well as Pomerleau. He's had a long-time involvement with the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Vermont Rail Network.
Remarkably, Worthen's brokerage division had its best year yet during the pandemic.
“I'm talking about the services our brokerage division did for other clients, whether it be sale, purchase, lease, landlord, you name it,” Worthen said. “We did $35 million worth of transactions in 2020.”
Worthen is known for the vast spread of his connections.
“He likes to cultivate people,” said his boss, Ernie Pomerleau. “He's on a lot of boards. He's got really good contacts. He's also got a genuine integrity. He's kind, and he really cares about other people.”
Stephanie Miller Taylor, a principal in REM Development and the daughter of the company's revered late founder, Bob Miller, regards Worthen as a long-time family friend.
“We trust him,” Taylor said. “Back when Keurig Green Mountain, now Keurig Dr. Pepper, was looking for a facility to do k-cups that was also on a railroad spur, Brad went out and found that very specific building. When my father wanted to sell a portion of our business, he approached Brad to find the kind of buyer he wanted to deal with. And Brad did that. He is willing and able to find deals that might not be on the open market. He's just good at what he does.”
No matter what the deal, Worthen makes sure a piece of it benefits the community, said Tom Torti, former longtime president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and now CEO of the Lake Champlain Chamber Opportunity Fund.
“Brad is one of the most community-oriented folks I've come across,” Torti said. “No matter what his job — and I've known him even before REM and Pomerleau — he's always looking for ways to improve the community. Whether that's helping our understanding of how to improve services at Burlington International Airport or working on passenger rail, he's always looking at the big picture in terms of what can give us the best bang for the buck. He wants to make this a place where people will want to move with their families, start a business and improve the spirit of the community. He's a communitarian, and no, I'm not sure that's a word, but it means a person with a focus on the community.”
Torti cited Worthen's fundraising for local summer camps, his early contributions to the Bobby Miller Fund “to recognize the work and passion of Bob Miller,” his work on the Chamber, where he has held leadership positions for many years, and his testifying before the Legislature on land development, taxes and basic human rights issues.
“He's just all around a really good guy who cares deeply about the community,” Torti said. “And on top of it all, he is one of the most honest and ethical people I know.”
Worthen's Vermont roots go deep.
“Fourth generation is as far back as I checked,” he said. “It might go back further than that. Half of my great-great-grandparents on my mom's side of the family were from Johnson. And on my dad's side of the family, my great-grandfather was a physician in Barre. There's actually a building on Main Street in Barre that says Worthen Block above it — he built it. And he was one of the founders of the Spaulding Institute [today's Spaulding High School] back in the late 1800s. So I've got a little woodchuck blood in me.”
Worthen is the oldest of two children; his sister is two years younger.
His father co-piloted B-17 Flying Fortress bombers during World War II. He flew 45 missions over Europe and was one of the lucky ones who got to come home afterward and start a life.
He went to the University of Vermont and graduated with a degree in agriculture.
“He worked with farmers throughout the area and headed up what was at the time the Champlain Valley Milk Producers — back in the '50s,” Worthen said. “Then he went to work as an assistant manager at Eastern States Cooperative, which turned into Agway. Most of his career was spent with Agway. He was a great outdoorsman. He loved to fish, loved to hunt, loved to ski. He passed away at the age of 97. I've got video of him skiing at the age of 90.”
Worthen's mother was a powerhouse of a saleswoman.
“She was from St Albans originally and graduated UVM in 1950,” he said. “Then she immediately began her own business on Williston Road, before it was a four-lane road.”
Her store was called Rae's Suburban; it sold high-end women's fashion.
“She ran it for 20 years,” Worthen said. “My mother was very much coveted by all the gentlemen who were late in gift shopping for the holidays. She'd know exactly what each woman would want, and have it all wrapped up and ready to go when the gentleman walked through the door on Christmas Eve.”
Then there were cocktail parties: she knew who was throwing them and who was on the guest list. That way, she could make sure she wasn't selling the same dress to two guests.
“That was back during the roaring '50s and '60s in Burlington,” Worthen said. “After 20 years she closed that shop and opened another one within Magram's on Church Street. Back then there were two really prominent department stores in addition to Sears on Church Street. They were both homegrown. Abernathy was at the top of Church Street, and Magram's was in the building on the corner of Church and Bank. Her shop was called the Suburban.”
His mother was the first to bring Calvin Klein jeans to Burlington; they became all the rage.
“She couldn't keep enough supply,” Worthen said. “So that was Mom. She had a great career. She passed at the age of 87, outliving everybody in her family, genetically, by 15 years.”
Worthen credits his mother for instilling in him and his sister the need for a direction in life that would assure them a level of financial comfort.
“Mom was really the astute businessperson of the parents,” Worthen said. “I can remember having my first Kool Aid sale, and I remember — just as a kid, you know —always trying to promote some sort of revenue-generating activity out on the front lawn of the house. So Mom and Dad, but more Mom, taught me the importance of money just by observing her, by example. She taught me that managing your money and the business part of your life is very important. Manage it. Don't let it manage you.”
Earning was an important value in Worthen's family.
“If I was going to be able to do anything that I wanted to do, it was up to me to go and figure out how to make it happen without having a handout,” he said. “The handouts from my parents came in the form of love and food, clothing and a roof over our head and a great neighborhood to be raised in.”
By the age of 13, Worthen was working summers and weekends at Agway with his father.
“I worked there all summers, lugging around 100-pound grain bags, which my chiropractor says was probably not the best thing,” he said. “But that's what I did. And I really enjoyed it because I was working with my dad. I worked there until I was 21 or 22.”
The enterprising Worthen also worked at the Gulf station on Williston Road.
“I used to work there on weekends, pumping gas,” he said. “I don't know why I'm alive. We were kids. We used to think the smell of leaded gas was 'wow!' I don't know if we were getting high or not, but there it was. So I worked at the Gulf station for most of my high school career.”
After high school, Worthen went to Johnson State College.
“Johnson had a first-time program called Johnson in France,” he said. “It was 40 students, including myself, and two faculty members. We parked ourselves in the south of France in an old town called Cap D'Ail. We were there for four or five months of one semester. We took our classes from our two professors and traveled all over Europe, including down to Morocco, and up to England. We also made a lot of trips to Italy because it was close.”
Worthen started his broadcasting career while he was at Johnson.
“Weekends I worked first for WJOY, which is now the Hall Broadcasting group,” he said. “Then I went to work for Channel 3, WCAX, as their weekend sports anchor, doing the Saturday 6 O'Clock and 11 O'Clock live sports desk broadcasts. I did that for five years.”
After two years at Johnson, Worthen decided to finish college with a business and marketing degree at UVM. He pulled a few strings and got into the January semester.
But he never finished his degree.
“Agway went into bankruptcy and my dad was laid off,” he said. “I was in my second-to-last semester of the five-year program and I just couldn't sit there in a classroom environment anymore. I had to go out and work. Not that Mom and Dad asked for any of that money, but I just needed to go do it. So the dean said, 'When you make your first million dollars, let me know.' So I started working full time at the radio station.”
And did he let the dean know when he had made his first million? When I asked, Worthen just smiled enigmatically.
With a resume that looks like alphabet soup — WJOY, WCAX-TV, WRFB, WNNE-TV, WVNY-TV — Worthen enjoyed an 18-year career in broadcasting.
“I always loved broadcasting,” he said. “I learned the power of broadcasting when I first started, because I was an 'on-air personality.' I couldn't go anywhere within the Channel 3 coverage area without multiple people on any given day saying 'You're Brad Worthen. I've seen you on TV.' It even happened in Montreal, because the CBS affiliate for Montreal was Channel 3.”
After a while, recognition became “a little intrusive,” Worthen said.
“So I learned, with a great respect, what personalities go through on a daily basis,” he said. “Whether they're local, or whether they're national or international. There are always people who are going to recognize you. Probably 20 years after I stopped broadcasting, I would still have some elderly person who used to watch that newscast say, 'Hey! Aren't you that guy?' I love the power of broadcasting, the power of the media and its ability to influence people.”
It didn't take long for Worthen to switch from on-air to sales, which, he pointed out, supports television news.
“Backing up that whole process was our group in the advertising department, bringing in the revenue on a daily basis to make the Six O'Clock News function in terms of revenue,” he said.
Two important things happened while he was broadcasting out of Stowe, where he was hired in January of 1976. First, inspired by his father's experience with B-17s, he got his private pilot's license; he's been flying ever since.
“I got my private pilot's license in 1979 at the Stowe-Morrisville airport,” Worthen said. “My dad was the first passenger I took flying the day I got my pilot's license, and he flew with me many times over the years. We attended many WWII B-17 reunions around the country.
Today, flying remains my number one pastime/passion.”
Second, Stowe reactivated his entrepreneurial spirit.
“I owned my first business when I was living in Stowe and working for the radio station,” he explained. “I would just look at all the holiday traffic backed up on the mountain road. And my second winter there, I said, 'I'm gonna tap into this.'”
He took out a $10,000 bank loan, added some support from the ski companies, and opened a ski rental place.
“There were very few places to rent good skis,” he said. “So I opened one right on the Mountain Road in Stowe. I ran it very successfully for two years.”
There wasn't a lot of snowmaking back then.
“The ski industry relies on snow,” Worthen said. “I'm in business. I've got a lot of debt. The first year was great. And in Stowe, 40 percent of all the activity that occurs revenue-wise occurs on the holiday weekend between Christmas and New Year's. That's 40 percent of your revenue. So, the week before Christmas there wasn't an ounce of snow anywhere in sight. The grass was green on December 19. And like everybody else in Stowe, I'm going 'Oh, what are we going to do?' And on the evening of the 20th, we had a huge lake-effect snow produced by Lake Champlain. The cold front coming through there went up the westerly side of Mount Mansfield and dumped all the snow on the eastern side. We had 22 inches of snow in 24 hours. I mean, nothing in Sugarbush. Nothing in Jay Peak. Just Stowe. All the ski rentals were gone for the week. I was sold out.”
Photo: Brad skiing at Stowe. Courtesy photo.
Worthen then recognized that his business was — dare I say it? — skating on thin ice.
“I said to myself, 'As smart as you think you might be, you can't outsmart Mother Nature,'” he told me. “So we finished the season, put the shop on the market, and sold it for a very handsome profit. I was just tickled pink. So I went out and bought an airplane, which is stupid, and a bunch of barrels of oil, which soon plummeted in value. I was only 26 years old. So that was my first real business ownership experience. And I was very fortunate there.”
After 18 years of broadcasting, Worthen decided he had come to the end of the road.
“I needed to do something different,” he said.
Worthen became interested in a demand for temporary employees.
“Temporary employment services were doing extremely well financially,” he said. “So I researched a number of opportunities in Burlington and ended up joining a group at the time which was called Norrell Services out of Atlanta. I became a franchisee under them and opened up my Burlington location around 1988 or 89.”
His franchise was successful, so five years later he opened a second service in Portland, Maine, where his family had summered for years, and where he and his sister still share a vacation cottage.
After doing that for four or five years, he also took over an existing office in Providence.
“Because I'm a private pilot, I decided that this was an easy thing to do,” he said. “I would just jump in a plane and fly to these locations. Well, it's never as easy as it looks. I was in that business for 12 years. But Norrell was a publicly traded company, and it got purchased by another company, Spherion Staffing Services, which is still in operation today. It's owned by Ken Ballard. Ken actually works for me as a temporary in my office answering the phones. And now he's very successful.”
Spherion offered to let Worthen out of his franchise contracts with a 50 percent bonus.
“I said, 'Thank you very much, I'm going to go ahead and take advantage of that,'” Worthen said. “And so, in the fall of 2001, I successfully sold all three offices.”
A Passion For Rail
With money in his pocket, Worthen was able to indulge in his interest in rail transport.
“I had an uncle who actually worked for the Central Vermont Railroad when I was a kid,” he said. “And so I would get to ride a locomotive up to Montreal, or in the baggage car from Essex up to St Albans. So when I finished with Norrell, there was a project I took a great interest in — trying to save what at the time was the St Johnsbury and Lamoille County Railroad.”
Worthen partnered with a Northeast Kingdom businessman named Peter Snyder to form the Vermont Rail Link, Inc.
“Basically, it was an advocacy organization, a lobbying organization, to convince officials both up and down the 92-mile line that ran from St. Johnsbury to Swanton to save the railroad,” Worthen said. “We didn't want it to be torn up for a recreational path, which it is today.”
Snyder, now a safety specialist and rules trainer for the Denver Transit Operators commuter rail system, thinks their Lamoille Rail project was at least 10 years ahead of its time.
“We were trying to save and operate a state-owned rail property,” Snyder told me. “I started the project, but it really wasn't until I met Brad that I had a viable project. He helped me understand the politics. I was so naive to Vermont politics, I thought I could propose a viable project and get it accepted. Brad helped me reach the people I needed to reach. We started dealing with Jim Jeffords and got him to commit the money for the project. I could never have done any of that without Brad. One time when we were lobbying the Statehouse, I was starting to become very frustrated, and it was showing. Brad reminded me that we couldn't afford that, it wasn't how things got done. He was cool enough to remind me to keep my head. I never understood why he didn't go into politics.”
For two years Worthen spent most of his time lobbying in Montpelier, pushing for his cause, while Snyder worked the towns and the rail lines.
“We would strategize together, and we actually saved the railroad within the Dean Administration,” Worthern said. “In its last year, we got a go ahead to prevent it from being torn up. But then Governor Douglas's administration held an off-hours, invite-only testimony from trail advocates, and within several days, they turned it over and said, 'No, you're not going to have this.' At the same time, they canceled the Champlain Flyer service between Charlotte and Burlington, the commuter service that Howard Dean put in. So that was the end of that. And I was licking my wounds from that, because it hurt. It was 96 miles torn up, and it's now the Lamoille Rail Trail. It's a beautiful trail. I mean, it's gorgeous. And I will not be negative about Jim Douglas, because I've known him for all of his career, and I like him very much. But it's the one thing we disagreed on.”
In keeping with his passion for trains, Worthern has been on the board of the Vermont Rail Action Network, a 2,500-member statewide political advocacy group for passenger and mail rail service, for many years. He's currently the vice president and treasurer.
“As an example, we were very much involved with politely requesting and pressuring the Scott administration and the Vermont Transportation Agency to get Amtrak services up and running again, which we celebrated two months ago.”
Return To Business
After his rail stint, Worthen purchased 30 acres of land in Richmond and successfully permitted an 11-lot subdivision.
“The experience of going through local zoning, abutters concerns, stormwater, wastewater, Fish & Game, Forestry and Act 250 requirements provided me with a solid foundation of understanding the complexity and challenges facing developers today,” Worthen said.
He also opened another business — and failed.
“When I sold the rail I had, again, some extra money available,” he said. “I wasn't as wise or savvy as I am now. I opened a franchise called Ladies Workout Express. It was a facility designed to entice women to come in and work out 30 minutes, and then go. I opened up one location which did OK. And I then I made the mistake of opening a second location. It didn't do OK. I lost it. After about three years of thinking, 'This is not working,' I got out. I lost a considerable amount of money doing it, but now I know when to call it quits.”
It was a good learning experience.
“You've got to have some failure to be successful,” he said.
He then became director of marketing for Bob Miller's REM Development Company, the largest industrial developer in the state.
“I worked for Bob Miller for a couple of years, doing his marketing and leasing,” Worthen said. “At the time he hired me, we had about a 20 percent vacancy rate in all these properties — very high back then in the early 2000s. By the time I got done with him, I was able to reduce his vacancy by half. He was happy with that.”
How did Worthen accomplish this?
“Well, I've always been a sales guy,” he said. “I just went out and knocked on doors and said, 'Hello!' When I started at the Norrell Temp Services, I opened up and then three months later we went into the recession of 1999. And as soon as a recession starts, all the demand for temporary help comes crashing down. So I said to myself, 'Okay, you've got to knock on doors.' So that first year I knocked on 800 doors. With Bob Miller, it was the same thing. We took a category of businesses, large or small, and started to promote our services directly to them. Also we provided more promotional material to all the commercial realtors in Chittenden County. And there's only about 30 or 40 commercial realtors in Chittenden County.”
One of the biggest tenant-leases Worthen brought to REM was Gardener’s Supply Company.
“They leased 126,000-square-feet from REM Development, and from there they grew exponentially. They're a significant client of the Miller family today. And if you'd asked me if I was going to be a Realtor before the Bob Miller job, I'd say, 'No way am I going to do that.'
Well, working for Bob led me to become a commercial realtor.”
After REM, Worthen spent 10 years learning the ropes with V/T Commercial.
“Then Ernie Pomerleau and the team came after me,” Worthern said. “I said, 'No, I'm really happy where I am.' They kept coming back and coming after me. And I had gotten to know everybody through negotiations on the other side, leasing Pomerleau properties to some other tenants that I was representing. I'm glad I made the move. It was great at V/T Commercial, but being here at Pomerleau's has been exceptional and I ended up being VP.”
COVID Slows Things Down
Commercial real estate breaks into four parts: industrial, office, retail and apartment buildings. So now that we know a little about Brad Worthen, let's look at the northern counties through his eyes.
Like it or not, Chittenden County has long been regarded as Vermont’s economic engine.
“With 35 percent of the state’s population, the three northwestern counties of Vermont—Chittenden, Franklin, and Grand Isle, are more important to the state than their population share indicates,” said a 2020 survey done for the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. by economist Arthur Woolf. “They account for a larger share of jobs, income and wages than their population share...Average wages are higher than elsewhere in the state.
A much larger share of income taxes comes from the region than its population share.”
Going into the pandemic, real estate started to shut down.
“Everybody withdrew from all activity,” Worthen said. “That's because nobody knew what to make of it. None of us did. Whether it was commercial real estate or buying groceries or finding toilet paper, or making a doctor's appointment, what do we do? So, there was a big turndown to start with. And then as we rolled through COVID, and got a better understanding of what's going on, things started to pick up.”
Industrial real estate is mainly leasing, not purchasing.
“Industrial is commercial warehouses, flexible space, distribution space, manufacturing space and storage space,” Worthen said. “All those fall under the industrial umbrella. It was very strong going into pandemic and remains very strong today.”
Essentially, there was not much available industrial space going into COVID.
“And COVID has really pushed the vacancy rate way down in industrial space,” Worthen said. “It’s hard to find smaller spaces. There are a couple of big spaces out there, big meaning 60- to 80,000-square-foot facilities, but smaller ones are tough to come by.”
Office space is a disaster and will not be coming back any time soon.
“Office was at historically high levels of vacancy before the pandemic,” Worthen said. “It only accelerated and got worse during the pandemic, and is worse today. Right now in Chittenden County, there's 800,000-square- feet of office space available.”
Some movement can be seen with the smaller spaces, Worthen said.
“Smaller spaces mean 1,000-square-foot to 3,000-square-foot size,” he said. “The movement is coming from people who are not happy where they are. They're right-sizing. Right-sizing can be going up or going down, obviously. So in many cases, because of the very high vacancy rate within the market, people coming out of leases that they're currently in want to right-size. And not only size-wise, but maybe rent-wise, too.”
Office rents have been depressed because of the excess inventory.
“Smaller spaces are tough to find, because they're limited,” Worthen said. “But how many stories in downtown Burlington do you want? I've got 20,000-square-foot buildings, 15,000-square-foot buildings, stories after stories.”
If there's an up side to the situation, it's that “fortunately, a lot of the landlords have been in business for a long time,” he said. “And they are able to — not happily — but they're able to absorb the loss. What you don't see is a lot of landlords having fire sales to get out of their properties. They've been able to weather it. And whether it's going back and re-mortgaging their properties or reducing rent to keep people in place, they are doing a variety of things.”
What will happen in the long run? Will some of the excess space be turned into badly needed apartments?
“The prognosis is that office space will continue to be a battle,” Worthen said. “We're muddling along. There's really no horizon that says, 'Yeah, we're gonna get back to a normal vacancy rate anytime soon.'”
Retail includes stores, malls and shopping plazas like the ones Pomerleau owns throughout Vermont and upstate New York.
“Those plazas are very strong because they were mostly anchored by grocery stores,” Worthen said. “The activity remained very high.”
All across the country department stores, once the anchor of malls everywhere, are fading away.
“The big box anchor store is a thing of the past,” Worthen said. “That's a very big challenge. The malls have had to re-analyze who their tenant base is going to be. People still want to walk into a store, feel and touch stuff, and then go home and order it online. So that's what smaller-scale stores do. All the nationals are looking at smaller footprints, still keeping a presence. That may change someday. Nothing's forever.”
In downtown Burlington, CityPlace is still a huge problem, leaving a huge empty space on Church Street looking like a bomb hit it. Formerly an enclosed shopping mall with the anchor stores Macy's and L. L. Bean, the western portion of the mall closed in fall 2017 for a redevelopment that never happened. The Macy's space is now being used as a high school.
And L.L. Bean has announced that it is pulling out and moving to Williston.
Photo: L.L. Bean in 2018 with the expectation that a new mall would grow around the downtown Burlington location. Now the iconic Maine retailer is moving out to the suburbs in Williston. Construction on a new mall and related commercial development has yet to begin. VBM Photo.
“I think it's unfortunate that they are leaving,” Worthen said. “I think that L.L. Bean was probably a little antsy about what was happening with CityPlace and all the uncertainty that has occurred over the last three to five years with that project.”
CityPlace developer Don Sinex has promised to start work soon on a smaller version of the original project. What started as a $225 million, 1.2 million-square-foot commercial, retail and housing complex with 288 apartments and 960 parking spaces has been redesigned to a $160 million project that includes 426 apartments, 45,000 square feet of retail and 422 parking spaces for a total of 700,000 square feet, according to VBM.
Securing financing has been one big problem for CityPlace's development, but Worthen also holds Act 250 responsible for the long wait.
“That project has to happen, right?” he said. “It has to happen for the vitality of our region. Not just Burlington, but the region. It's scaled down to where it's manageable now, in terms of size, in terms of fit. It's probably better for the long-term picture. The disappointment of the whole process is what Ernie Pomerleau has worked on for years and continues to work on: redesigning the end game of Act 250.”
According to Worthen, developers don't have a problem with Act 250. It was designed to provide sensible growth in Vermont, and it has done its job spectacularly well.
“The problem with Act 250 is that anybody — anybody — after all permits are issued, can hold up a development,” Worthen said. “There's a final 30-day waiting period before you can actually begin to get your final permit and you can begin construction. Anybody who has attended a hearing, prior to that approval by the board of Act 250 or local zoning, wherever, providing that person has attended and logged in or registered at a hearing, becomes a party to that hearing.”
Right now some parties' lawsuits are holding up CityPlace, Worthen said.
“It could go on for another two years,” Worthen said. “The appeals hole is a huge hole in Act 250, a black hole that people can submerge in and hold up the process. And so developers like L. L. Bean get antsy because its building was surrounded by nothing. They didn't have a warm and fuzzy feeling about that. It's unfortunate, a loss for downtown, but we have other outdoor sporting goods stores in downtown which are very successful. Once things settle, getting the shovel in the ground at CityPlace, and construction begins, leasing activity will begin for retail in that location.”
L.L. Bean may be leaving, but thanks to Worthen's group, Black Diamond Equipment, “Designing and constructing the world's best climbing, skiing & mountain gear since 1957,” according to its website, will be coming to the top of Church Street.
“Black Diamond is a national firm that was represented by one of my team brokers, Kendra Kenney,” Worthen said. “As they sought out local representation in pursuit of a new retail store, Kendra located an opening at the top of Church Street for them.”
Parts of the retail rental market have taken a terrible hit. Restaurants, bars and performance spaces had to close during the pandemic and are now coming back, although finding workers is a problem, not only in Burlington but pretty much everywhere. But the story is not entirely grim.
“On Church Street or off of Church Street, as a retail shopping center, it's very difficult to find any available space,” Worthen said.
Malls like University Mall and Maple Tree Place do have space.
“Those have been a little bit more beat up because they're more of a destination shopping experience,” Worthen said.
Apartment buildings — the buildings themselves, mind you, not single apartments — are not turning over because rents are through the roof.
“In general, apartment buildings prior to COVID were in high demand,” Worthen said. “The vacancy rates were 1.5 percent, when the normal vacancy is 4 or 5 percent. We've had a low vacancy rate in Chittenden County for a decade or more. Even though developers are adding, on average over the past 10 years, including this year, 500 new housing units every year in Chittenden County.”
Apartment buildings are commanding a premium price.
“That's because they're investment properties,” Worthen said. “investment properties are purchased based on the net operating income rent that is brought in. So it's all based on a capitalization rate for that industry. The capitalization rates for apartment buildings are extremely strong right now. We didn't do one this year. I was on the hook for one but the deal fell through. That happens. But we are assisting our clients in purchasing and or selling apartment buildings.”
The lack of affordable housing is a problem in almost every city and town in Vermont.
“The lack drives up the ability of a landlord to charge a higher rent for an apartment,” Worthen said. “Apartment rents are at an all-time high. There are some new luxury apartments being built in downtown Burlington. They've got a lake view, they're brand new, two-bedroom, 1100-square-feet with a balcony, whatever. They're charging $4,000 a month rent.”
Who can pay that much?
“You have a higher proportion of higher income people here in Chittenden County,” he said. “Also, you should be getting people moving up here from down country. Because of COVID, they may have sold their houses for a premium. Perhaps they have a boatload of cash. They may be retirees. And they don't want to own, they just want to rent. So they rent and they pay the market price. The market price right now for apartment buildings, from the low end to the high end, are all at record levels.”
While Vermont is still coming out of COVID, his business has taken off, Worthen said.
“I don't think I'll be as good as last year,” he said, “because we had a couple of very large transactions occur last year, in 2020. But again, there's a pent-up demand. I just call it COVID Revenge. Whether it's people going out shopping for something that they wanted, or trying to find a car, or anything like that, people are traveling or going out to eat or doing other things that have pretty much dominated the headlines. So people in the commercial real estate business have COVID Revenge too — things they have been thinking about in terms of purchasing or leasing.”
Worthen is a big fan of the work Russ Scully is doing at Hula, the new business incubator-slash-venture capital combo on the Burlington waterfront.
Photo: Bradford Worthen, the vice president of commercial and business brokerage for Burlington's Pomerleau Real Estate. Photo by Katie Kittell
“Russ Scully is hitting the right formula at the right time,” Worthen said. “The upside of COVID is, 'I gotta get out of the house. The dining room table ain't working anymore.' So Hula is a huge success. You get one small office. Then you have a common lobby, common copier machine, common receptionist, whatever. His facility is global. It could go in any major city in the world. But he made it happen here. A lot of times, people come in with a vision and want to make things happen. And they have their financial resources to back it up. And they make it happen. And we all benefit.”
Once an incubator company gets too big for Hula, Worthen will be right there to hook it up with a larger commercial space.
“That's where we come in,” he said. “Whether we're representing a landlord, or we get a call from someone who has outgrown Russ's facility, that's where we come into play.”
Worthen is upbeat about the future.
“I'm very optimistic for commercial real estate activity remaining lucrative in Chittenden County and the surrounding counties of Franklin, Lamoille, Washington and Addison,” he said. “The return of retail, especially boutique retailers, is trending positive. The office segment is active for smaller offices but larger will take a while to lease up or convert to other uses. Demand for industrial locations is tight, so activity is limited to actual available inventory.
“However, land to develop new industrial properties is very limited in Chittenden County. New construction is expensive at the moment but should adjust as supplies open up. Think Canadian lumber, post-COVID foreign imports, and improving supply chains. The demand for apartments remains high, thus driving up rents. Thus owners/landlords can sell their properties at historically high prices. Last year Pomerleau brokered a large industrial sale consisting of 11 properties in one portfolio transaction.”
Worthen lives the good life. He drives a 2021 custom BMW 540i built in Germany to his specifications, and owns a plane, a Mooney, hangared at Burlington International Airport, that “keeps me required to be gainfully employed,” he joked.
He and his husband live in Richmond; they have been together for 30 years.
“We were very happy when the civil unions became in play,” he said. “We were married officially 12 years ago August.”
He has no plans to retire.
“I'm very happy at Pomerleau,” Worthen said. “While I could retire any time now, I enjoy being in the office every day, being a part of the team. I have a flexible schedule to pursue other interests as time permits. I don't think I'll be leaving Pomerleau anytime soon to retire, as being here is a great way to put the frosting on an excellent career of varied endeavors. I'm very fortunate.”
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut, the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.