Developer Camm Morton came to Baton Rouge in 2002 to run Commercial Properties for the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. Though no stranger to Louisiana—he lived in New Orleans until he was 15—Morton built his career out of state, developing outlet malls and shopping centers throughout the Southeast in the 1980s and 1990s. During his tenure at Commercial Properties, he was involved in the development of the Shaw Center for the Arts and the downtown establishments surrounding it—One-Eleven, Stroubes and Capital City Grill. He also helped lay the foundation for two major redevelopment projects currently under way: Smiley Heights and Acadian Village. However, Morton’s signature project at Commercial Properties was the redevelopment of the historic Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center, which opened in 2006. In 2008 he left Commercial Properties to form Ashby Hospitality, which assumed management of the hotel. But in 2010 Ashby was ousted by Commercial Properties in a bitter legal dispute over who would pay for accounting services at the hotel. The matter went to arbitration and has since been settled.
The developer is now embarking on the next chapter in his career: a business brokerage firm. He sat down with Business Report to discuss his outlook on the Baton Rouge real estate market, the changes he has observed during his 11 years here and his recent career move.
Litigation precludes any direct discussion [about the dispute]. But I can say I was pleased with the outcome and have no hard feelings. BRAF remains a vital community asset, and I will always support its mission. I think what is important is that although the press played it up as BRAF versus me, it was a lawsuit against Ashby Hospitality. Not sure that matters, since Ashby was and still is owned totally by me; but to make sure everyone is on the same page it’s important to make that clear.
I have not left Ashby. It is still in existence, and I am still president and CEO. When Ashby took over as manager of the Hilton on Jan. 1, 2008, the recession had just begun, and it was not a good time to be in the market looking to buy or manage additional hotels. … We tried to land other opportunities but nothing felt right. With Ashby replaced and Hilton sold to investors [in 2012], I have been working on several other real estate ventures … but nothing of significance yet.
In some ways, it is very different; in some ways, much the same. I remember my first tour of downtown with [CPEX Director] Boo Thomas, when I arrived 11 years ago. She drove me around showing me all the projects from the first master plan to improve downtown Baton Rouge. … It contained more than 100 elements, many of which required a public-private partnership to execute. As an outlet developer who had ridden around many a tired downtown, I was somewhat dubious. However, since then many of those things have happened. There are now four downtown hotels, the Shaw Center for the Arts, a new office building, new residential developments, many new restaurants, a revitalized convention center and much more. Boo Thomas, Mark Drennen, BRAF and Davis Rhorer deserve much of the credit for having a vision and pushing it forward.
I think the future is bright for Baton Rouge, in large measure due to our demographics and the surge in the petrochemical business. According to the last census, the Baton Rouge MSA is around 800,000 and growing. That will help us attract new retailers, which, in turn, will help bring more credibility to the market and better retailers.
I do not believe Baton Rouge is a difficult place to develop, particularly if you are building quality. Sure, there are NIMBYs, but they exist everywhere. What is most concerning is how often our Metro Council overrules the Planning Commission and how often the Planning Commission overrules its staff recommendations. Developers want certainty; and while they will complain about jurisdictions in which there are tough rules, they flock to such places to do development because the rules apply equally to everyone. We need to raise our expectations and demand higher standards here. For too long, we were happy to have any development, so we tolerated poor quality and design. We do not have to do that anymore. If we were more like Charleston, Raleigh or Austin in our expectations, we would get more.
I am not moving away from commercial real estate. I’m pursuing something where I believe I can do some real good, helping put together people who want to buy and sell businesses. In the past, I have looked around at trying to buy a business that would be fun and invigorating and leverage the skills I have developed over the years, but nothing ever seemed right. In the process of looking around, I discovered a business that might be a great fit for me—business brokerage. … I started looking at companies in the business with no office in Baton Rouge. My hope was to partner with a company that shares my core values. … That company is VR Business Sales, Mergers and Acquisitions. They have been around over 30 years and have a strong focus on client service.
With the economy on the upswing, it seemed like a good time to open an office here and begin connecting people to opportunities. I love the art of the deal and negotiation. As a guy who has started businesses, sold businesses, bought (businesses) and purchased a lot of real estate, I think I will have a lot to offer my clients.
Baton Rouge is my primary market, though soon I’ll be expanding into areas south of Interstate 10 between the Texas and Mississippi borders. There is a lot going on in our state, and I have contacts with private equity groups in other states that have a huge interest in making investments here. I have been encouraged by them to look for deals, so I’m on the lookout for several specific sectors. On deal size, VR’s average transaction is $500,000, and I do not want to pull down the average. That said, I believe every business owner deserves great representation. My goal is to provide that.
Business is on the upswing again. Many owners who wanted to sell had to wait because, as their sales and bottom lines went down, so did the value of their businesses. Now, with better sales and better bottom lines and more mature owners, I think it is the perfect time.