Birmingham commercial real estate’s in the national spotlight thanks to these three guys

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Chip Watts and Tim Blair are both leaders in Birmingham's commercial real estate scene
Chip Watts & Tim Blair. Photo via Watts Realty

As we get ready to welcome the world in 2022 with The World Games, three Birmingham commercial real estate leaders are working to put our Magic City on the map. We spoke with Chip Watts, President of Watts Realty and President-elect of the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM), to learn more. 

2021: The year three Birmingham Realtors become leaders in three national + international real estate organizations

Sign for The World Games 2022
The World Games 2022 is scheduled for July 7-17, 2022 in Birmingham. Photo via The World Games 2022

It was such a great plan, with limitless potential for Birmingham. In the run-up to The World Games 2021 (now rescheduled to 2022), three Birmingham Realtors were lined up to serve in leadership roles in major national and international real estate organizations. 

Chip Watts standing in front of a Watts Realty building
Chip Watts. Photo via Watts Realty

Chip Watts is slated to be the 2021 President of IREM—the Institute of Real Estate Management, an international organization of over 20,000 members in 86 countries across the globe which provides opportunities for learning, networking and professional certifications to property and asset managers.

Tim Blair in front of a very cool looking building
Tim Blair in front of a very cool looking building. Photo via Shannon Waltchack

Tim Blair, at Shannon Waltchack, is slated to serve as the 2021 President for CCIM (Certified Commercial Investment Member) Institute, “Commercial Real Estate’s Gold Standard for Professional Achievement” among brokers.

Bryan Holt of Southpace is one of Birmingham's commercial real estate leaders
Bryan Holt. Photo via Southpace

Bryan Holt, at Southpace, is the 2021 chair-elect of RBN—Retail Brokers Network of North America, a national shopping center retail group.

The three were, according to Watts, gearing up for The World Games 2021, which was going to be “the big deal” for his year with IREM. He and the others had thought of so many different, fun ways to bring Birmingham onto the international stage.

Unfortunately, COVID had other plans, so Watts has been “trying to figure out a different way to invoke [Birmingham] throughout the organization” during this year as president-elect. 

The trio is still planning to have fun repping Birmingham and Alabama to the world—it’s just going to look really different now. 

A bit about Watts Realty

W.A. Watts was the founder of Watts Realty
W.A. Watts, back in the day. Photo via Watts Realty

Since 1907, when W.A. Watts began buying, selling, dealing and owning real estate in the Birmingham area, real estate has been central to the Watts family. Now, 113 years later, Chip Watts is the fourth generation president of Watts Realty. He’s also currently serving as President-Elect of the Institute of Real Estate Management (IREM)

Like Blair and Holt, he’s using his platform to put Birmingham’s real estate market on the global map in the run up to The World Games 2022. 

What is the Institute of Real Estate Management + how did a guy from Birmingham become president-elect?

Downtown Birmingham's commercial real estate scene is the talk of national and international conversations, thanks to three local leaders
Downtown Birmingham on a hazy day. Photo via Jacob Blankenship for Bham Now

IREM is an international organization focused on providing learning, networking and professional certifications to its over 20,000 members in over 86 countries who work in property and asset management. 

Watts’ background made him a natural fit: fourth generation Realtor, third generation Certified Property Manager (an IREM-conferred designation) and second generation CCIM (the brokerage equivalent of the CPM in the commercial arena) and now President of Watts Realty

Being president-elect of IREM gives him the chance to “give to the organization that’s provided so much to me and my family for generations. A formal degree in real estate management wasn’t available when I went to college. CCIM’s coursework was the training ground that allowed me to become a Certified Property Manager.”

How Watts’ role with IREM helps him shine a light on Birmingham’s real estate market across the globe, even during a global pandemic

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute plays a large role in shaping people's imaginations about and understanding of Birmingham
Kids at Kelly Ingram Park. Photo via Kristina O’Quinn for Bham Now

The first thing people notice, said Watts, is his accent. The word “y’all” is a giveaway, and a conversation starter. Then when people ask where he’s from, he says Birmingham, Alabama. Next, they say “Roll Tide,” and he yells back “War Eagle.” And the conversation has begun. 

“Lots of people in the US see Birmingham as the start of the Civil Rights movement, and rightly so. A lot of people ask about the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and what it’s like to be in Birmingham. From there, we talk about different aspects of the city, including quality of life, how real estate is, whether there are investment-grade properties here, benefits of living in Birmingham vs. other areas of the country where I may be speaking at the time.”

What are you seeing in property management in the context of the pandemic?

We are all in this together mural, painted by Shawn Fitzwater
We are all in this together. Photo via Shawn Fitzwater

Property managers are the middlemen between a rock and a hard place, according to Watts, whose company manages 1 million square feet of commercial real estate and 550-600 residential units. They have to try to get people to pay their rent so they can work for their clients, the property owners. If people don’t pay rent, the property owners can’t pay their mortgage. If they don’t pay the mortgage, the foreclosure process begins. 

Eviction moratoriums for renters at the federal and state level did not give property owners a break on mortgages, taxes or insurance, Watts said. As you can imagine, without sufficient rental income, it becomes difficult to meet those obligations.

So what can a company like Watts do, when they’re caught in the middle of property owners who need to pay mortgages and tenants who may be struggling to pay rent? Watts cited three key things: 

  • Keep the lines of communication open—they strive to call residents and tenants to see what they can do to help. For example, they can usually work out a way to delay or spread out rent over a few months. Ideally, they want to find a way that’s beneficial for both parties, clients and customers, to be able to move forward through the pandemic. 
  • Provide resources to residents and tenants who are having problems paying rent so they can help themselves, for example shared information on PPP loans to all tenants on the commercial side. For residents, they gave people information on how to apply for unemployment and grants to help pay rent. 
  • Help get the word out about your tenants. Publicity can make or break their businesses, and more and more local commercial real estate firms, including Watts, are doing this. For example, Watts has featured Soho Retro, Ikko and Charlemagne Record Exchange

“We’re all in this together. We want to help all our people—customers and clients—move forward. We want them to be able to ask questions without fear of judgment or retaliation.”

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