Gayle Benson makes big move into real estate, buying local broker Corporate Realty | Business News

New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Gayle Benson has purchased Corporate Realty, one of the largest commercial real estate brokerage and management firms in the metro area, in a move aimed at expanding the real estate portion of her business empire.

The acquisition, the financial details of which are not being disclosed, is a sign of Benson and her advisors’ ambitions in managing and operating commercial properties, especially in the area of entertainment and sports venues.

In an interview, Benson said it is also an expression of her confidence in the immediate prospects for the New Orleans economy, and the potential to grow Corporate Realty into new business lines and other parts of the country.

“Their vision and our vision is very much aligned and our aim is to significantly increase the footprint of Corporate Realty regionally and beyond,” Benson said.

New Orleans billionaire Tom Benson purchased Cadillac of New Orleans, located in Metairie, in spring 2017. Benson had a relationship with General Motors dating back to the 1950s, when he first became a GM dealer. The Benson roster of car dealerships includes Best Chevrolet in Kenner and Mercedes-Benz of New Orleans.

The Benson group of companies already has significant real estate interests related to the Saints Organization and other businesses. In addition to leases on the state-owned Caesars Superdome and Smoothie King Center, the group also has a new tenancy at the Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama, for Benson’s NBA G-League team, the Birmingham Squadron, which had its first home game there earlier this month.

Benson owns a share in the Hyatt Regency hotel and has rights over 900 parking spaces in the area. Also in the business empire is the 26-story Benson Tower, the nearly 500,000 square-foot skyscraper acquired in 2009 as part of the Superdome lease deal with the state that was brokered by Corporate Realty. She also owns the nearby New Orleans Center, the now-defunct mall that once included Macy’s and Lord & Taylor as anchor tenants.

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The land and buildings associated with the car dealerships that were the original source of the late Tom Benson’s fortune are also part of the group’s property interests. Gayle Benson Automotive Group is building a 20,000 square foot Sprinter Van dealership on the corner of Poydras Street and Claiborne Avenue in the Central Business District, with Woodward Design and Build as prime contractor.

Corporate Realty’s roots stretch back to the middle of the last century when it was part of the development interests in the sprawling real estate empire run by the Latter and Schlesinger families. Sidney Lassen, former CEO and chairman of Sizeler Property Investors in Metairie, has been majority owner since the early 1990s, though it has been run day-to-day for the past 15 years by President Michael Siegel.

Corporate Realty has interests in many parts of the local property market. In the past year, it has brokered about 45 sales with a total value of more than $65 million and has handled nearly 400 lease transactions.

Tulane University, the largest single land owner in New Orleans, has outsourced its real estate transactions to Corporate Realty. The firm also manages nearly 3 million square feet of office, retail, and other commercial space and has a consulting practice as well. 

“We do transactions all day but what we really like are big projects that we can dig deep into,” said Siegel. These include, for example, its consulting work on the multi-billion-dollar River District project, which aims to create a brand new entertainment-focused neighborhood on about 50 acres of riverfront land owned by the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

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The Caesars Dome and Benson Tower in New Orleans, Thursday, July 22, 2021. (Staff photo by David Grunfeld, | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

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A group led by local developer Lou Lauricella won the contract to be “master developer” of the River District project earlier this year and both Lauricella and Benson have said they would like to work together developing potential sports and entertainment venues that would form part of that new neighborhood.

That could include the conversion into an entertainment venue of the old Market Street Power Plant, the crumbling structure that sits on land adjacent to the Convention Center’s upriver acres which Lauricella’s group is buying from local developer Joe Jaeger.

Benson said that her immediate priorities in real estate include working with Jefferson Parish authorities and ASM Global, which manages the Superdome and Smoothie King Center on behalf of the Superdome Commission, to determine the future of the “Lasalle Tract”, the property that includes the Shrine on Airline. That venue was home to the Triple-A Baby Cakes baseball team until they decamped to Wichita, Kansas two years ago.

There have been various proposals about bringing a new sports franchise to the site, but the pandemic has delayed progress.

“That really is too valuable a piece of property to just let sit there,” said Benson. “We don’t want to tell the parish what to do but we have some long-term recommendations about what to do with it.”

The Benson group also is focusing on how to develop the properties on the river side of the Superdome. Caesars Entertainment executives said earlier this year, when inking a $138 million 20-year naming rights deal for the Superdome, that they would like to develop joint projects with the Benson group, which might include the Champions Square and New Orleans Center space.

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Benson says her other real estate priority is the Faubourg Brewery in New Orleans East, which was acquired by Benson in 2016. The newly built brewery on Jourdan Road includes 35 acres, much of which is not yet developed.

The new brewery included a taproom, a museum, and family-friendly music and Saints-related events, some of which have attracted crowds in the thousands. That has encouraged Benson group executives to be more ambitious in thinking about how to develop that site as an entertainment venue.

But the plans for Corporate Realty are broader than just the areas where Benson group real estate ambitions dovetail with its own expertise.

“For what we do, this is a dream come true,” said Siegel. “Their vision and our vision is not just to be a local real estate company. They are going to bring a much bigger platform with the brands they represent, much more reach, and capital if we need it.”

Though Corporate Realty is one of the biggest players locally, under Benson the company will seek to buy other complementary regional companies, hire new brokers and consultants, and make other investments to expand into new areas and locales, Siegel said.

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The facility for Faubourg Brewing, formerly Dixie Beer, in New Orleans East opens to a large beer garden and landscaped grounds. The brewery sits on a site with a total of 35 acres, which the Benson group is keen to develop.

“They didn’t buy Corporate Realty for us to just rock along and keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Siegel said. “They are going to put their full faith and credit, their expertise, reach, and brain power into what we do, with the goal of growing it substantially.”

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