Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What’s on the Horizon?

What a spectacular way to start the month! At six o’clock this morning the sky was a dome of azure blue as I silently cruised on my bicycle along the Appleton Road towards the Village, five miles distant. The overnight temperatures were distinctly cooler than they have been for months, and as a result the mists on this early September morn were spilling off the fields onto the highway in volume. If ever there were an impetus to do the right thing in life, this was it! It was good to be alive! As the sun, a hazy yellow ball of blinding brilliance, rose flashing between the dark green tops of the corn stalks, I could also make out a slight tinge of rouge on certain clumps of high tree-tops in the distance along the River. We’re not quite to the point where the "morn in russet mantle clad breaks o’er yonder hill", but it won’t be long. Nature gathers speed pretty quickly at this time of year.

Meanwhile I am content to occupy myself with nothing more extraordinary than packing my bag for Newfoundland. In keeping with our travel tradition of going casual (something to which I suspect Newfoundland will comfortably lend itself), our intention is to pack gear which is as simple and as flexible as possible, permitting lots of mix and match combinations while preserving an economy of stuff. Customarily we travel with only one bag each, plus a shoulder bag for personal items, money, credit cards and travel documents. Our jaunts are never for great periods of time, usually just a long weekend, or perhaps ten days in the winter in Florida (where we regularly avail ourselves of the hotel laundry service). Being the clothes horse that I am, however, I confess to cultivating a hope to make some find in a local boutique - perhaps a handmade sweater from the region, which is known for such expertise - to supplement what little we bring with us. An item like that, when on vacation, nicely rounds out the experience for me. Otherwise it’s all very practical commodities, accessories and clothes, nothing particularly stylish or formal. Over the several days preceding our departure, in order to ensure that nothing is forgotten in last minute haste (like a bathing suit and an extra pair of glasses), I begin withdrawing things from closets and drawers, folding and piling them in my study, next to my luggage, preparing to stuff them into the bag just hours before our flight, along with the usual bathroom paraphernalia and daily medicaments, pills and other drugs which so regrettably characterize the aging people we are.

Yesterday on the street outside my office, while I was popping into the bank to conduct a bit of business, I encountered another local Solicitor getting into his car. He asked me whether I was able at last to take a deep breath. Silly of me, but at first I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. Then I realized he must be referring to what is for most conveyancers a panic time of year at the end of the month and the end of the summer. Almost apologetically I advised him that I was never a "volume" sort of person, and that in fact this time of year is invariably quite pleasant for me. I suppose I could have added that any time of the year is really quite pleasant for me, but I didn’t want to put too fine a point on it. After all, what does he care!

In years gone by, when I regularly trekked to Cape Cod at the beginning of September, I was frequently obliged to turn away business which was scheduled to conclude during my impending absence. This time, as luck would have it, everything is transpiring either immediately before our departure or afterwards. But in the weeks leading up to a vacation, it is always the first question on my lips, "When does the deal close?". Only once in my entire career have I had a client who preferred to defer a closing until my return; and similarly only once have I had a client who insisted that I defer my holiday to accommodate his closing (which, by the way, I did, though I am quick to add that will never happen again). As I say, I take such little time by way of vacation as it is, one of the tragedies of running a small business, but I have learned to live with the qualification and without any sense of regret. I suspect the blunt truth is that I find it difficult to bear the deprivation of the place. Having at last succeeded in establishing a relatively painless cadence in the practice of law, surely it would be self-defeating to abandon the project just when things are beginning to be some fun.

One can of course only manipulate the economy so far. As we hit this trough of inactivity in early September, it amuses me to consider what will unfold this Fall. Unquestionably there is more and more interest in enlargement of real estate portfolios, a preoccupation which has replaced the former intensity of the high-tech investors. It is nothing these days for me to learn of people intending to carry two homes and two mortgages, granted renting one of them. One lady even informed me that she plans to acquire a third home within the year. I have also noticed a resurgence of companies touting themselves as "specializing in providing investors with full-service, profitable real estate investment opportunities for those who don’t have the time or knowledge to proceed on their own", marking a clear swing away from the traditional mutual funds, though of course it’s the same horse by another name. Long ago I learned that management of a real estate portfolio is hard work and not inexpensive. Real estate, while it can offer cash flow, long-term appreciation and diversity, is nonetheless best left with those who know and understand it, like any other undertaking.

All around me I am surrounded by perpetual real estate development, the upgrading and improvement of many of the historic buildings in the core area of Town. It is as infectious as any disease, having the very pleasant effect of encouraging others adjacent to do the same. The nucleus of this development is, however, a mere handful of individuals who happen to share the ownership of several of the most prominent buildings, some of which I imagine could easily be 15,000 square feet or more. Oddly enough, one of the primary motivators of this colossal development is a man who was originally an artist - albeit a very successful one - by trade. It has turned out to be a happy coincidence since he has melded his very clever artistic eye with the equally skillful rejuvenation of these buildings, ably assisted by his young and competent architects. Behind him of course are an army of what the artist/developer calls his "angels", that throng of largely local investors who think well enough of him and his projects to put their not insignificant sums where it counts. Each building is much like a revolving line of credit, being pumped and drained as the development progresses to the point where institutional lenders have an interest in the security. I simply cannot fathom what this Town would have been like without this group of developers and investors. For thirty-three years I have watched the process, and I can tell you it is something at which to marvel.

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