Four senior real estate majors at the University of Central Florida earned their stripes last month in the UCF Case Competition, winning over judges with a mixed-use development that proposed bringing one of the world's fastest growing sports to Orlando's tourism corridor.
NAIOP has sponsored the UCF Case Competition since its inception, with this past April being the 10th year of the program.
The hands-on experience for undergraduate real estate students has them form teams to evaluate a prime site in the region, and devise a development plan based on the current market.
Professional mentors from the fields of development, lending, brokerage, engineering and architecture help the teams create a proposal that is not only buildable and code compliant, but economically viable with compelling returns for investors and exit strategies.
The teams were given the same site to work with: 36 acres on Westwood Boulevard directly south of the Orange County Convention Center's west concourse and West Entrance Drive, with a purchase price of $600,000 per acre.
They were told to disregard the real-world circumstances of that property, which is owned by four different groups with a Tru by Hilton hotel now under construction, a 300-room Le Meridien hotel proposed, and a 20-acre site being planned for up to 1,200 hotel keys.
Hill, Kane, Norwood and Wightman consulted with more than 20 public and private sector professionals for an entire semester while vetting their concept.
They arrived at "Champions Park," a mixed-use development with a hotel and apartments, but anchored by an entertainment complex dubbed "The Ring" that features a year-round training facility, 2,500-seat arena and hall of fame for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
UFC is the premier league for mixed martial arts, widely regarded as the fastest growing sport in the world. Its gross annual revenue has increased 250 percent since 2007, and in 2016 WME-IMG paid $4.2 billion for a majority stake in the league.
The students told GrowthSpotter they heard chuckles from the audience and judges panel when first introducing the concept. But after laying out that data and more -- including consistent UFC sellouts at Amway Arena and the fact that 500 MMA fighters are registered in Florida -- they had everyone's undivided attention.
Ross Halle, senior vice president with Avalon Park Group and a judge for the Case Competition, said the winning group went above and beyond the norm to consult with more professionals than their peers, giving them unique market insight.
The students were able to recognize the competition of product in the tourism corridor, which resulted in a creative mix of uses that were seemingly well integrated.
The project's main attraction was obviously the UFC entertainment complex, and establishing such an attraction helped convince judges that the other commercial uses would be supported on an otherwise under-trafficked Westwood Boulevard.
"I commend them for implementing the ideas around 'Placemaking,'" Halle said. "The public space that was central to their project would result in an area that would change uses throughout the day and be able to evolve and change with an ever-demanding market."
The winning group also presented a highly detailed and creative financing component to their project that others did not.
Their idea to sell the hotel and multifamily parcels early in the development process would provide the cash equity needed to develop the central UFC complex, which showed judges they understood how specializing in one segment of a mixed-use development could lead to success.
The students reached deals to sell a fictional 8-acre lot entitled for 300 apartments to Unicorp National Developments, and a 12-acre lot approved for a 720-key Legacy by Westin-flagged hotel to NVision Development.
Those sales brought them $22.5 million in fictional equity, and with 16 acres remaining it reduced their effective land basis per acre from an original $672,484 to $180,666.
In the end, that land flip helped win over the judges because the team would only be asking for an equity partner to contribute 17 percent of The Ring's development cost, compared to 18 percent the students would put down.
"For me, the winning team presented a project with a diverse mix of uses that melded well in an area identified by theme parks, hotels and the convention center," said Mary Hurley, Florida director for Land Advisors Capital and competition judge.
The team worked with mentors at Cuhaci & Peterson for sketches and renderings of the complex, and associates at Colliers International Central Florida to help market 30,000 square feet of retail and dining space at The Ring complex.
In the end, the four students won $500 each, a bit of prestige among their peers, and priceless validation that their ideas could cut it in the competitive world of CRE.
"I don't think the win came from getting first place," said Collin Hill, team captain. "It came from getting to know all these great professionals."
Within the past two weeks three of the four team members have secured jobs with local real estate firms, he added on Tuesday.
Mentors for the Case Competition often benefit from networking with one another, said Trevor Hall, Jr., executive managing director and land specialist at Colliers International Central Florida.
"We are working on an assignment, a site acquisition, with one of Cuhaci & Peterson's clients as a result," he said. "The same thing happened last year with the banker involved in our mentorship team."
He also credits the students with a bit of "reverse mentoring" during the challenge.
"This younger generation just knows and does things in a way I don't," Hall said. "It helps to be with them and learn, even with all the experiences and professional relationships I have benefited from so far."