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Wednesday, 17 November 2010 20:13

Haywood Realtors weighing merger with Asheville board

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It’s no secret that real estate isn’t what it used to be. It would be difficult to find an industry hit harder by the global recession, and although the bloodletting seems to be slowing, things still are not — and may never be — what they were in the heady pre-recession days for Realtors.

As one Realtor astutely observed at a meeting of the Haywood County Board of Realtors last week, “We probably won’t ever see another 2005.”

And it is with that new economic climate in mind that the board came together to discuss a new idea that might offer some stability for a somewhat-uncertain future — regionalization.

The idea under consideration is for the Haywood County Board of Realtors to merge with Asheville, Hendersonville and Brevard to create a mega-realty board, pooling resources and offering a little security in case real estate plunges into a dreaded double-dip. The concept didn’t sit terribly well with some Realtors at the Nov. 9 meeting. They were concerned about a merger robbing Haywood county’s real estate community of its unique flavor. Wouldn’t this be one step toward making the county just an extension of Asheville? Wouldn’t this just fold Haywood’s unique needs into the overpowering interests of Buncombe County?

And the board’s leadership isn’t denying that this is a possibility. But facing another recession — or even just a bump in the road — may be a bigger problem for the Haywood County Board of Realtors, who wouldn’t be able to indefinitely operate at the same level if their membership numbers keep dropping.

“If the real estate market doesn’t improve, then neither will my membership,” said Lisa Brown, the association executive for Haywood County. Which is why they board is looking into merging now, when it is financially stable and can make a decision based on information, not desperation.

“If we want to go to a regional Realtor association, it will be because we want to, not because we have to,” Brown said.

According to Brown and Asheville Board or Realtors president Jamie Blue, that is one of the unique things about this proposal: all four of the boards involved are coming to the table financially healthy, so no one member will dump its debts or dire financial troubles on the others.

Another defining feature is equality. Under the proposal, a regional board would be comprised of three members from each board. This equal voice would could alleviate some of the concerns that Haywood Realtors have about being railroaded by Asheville, although there are some questions as to where the thirteenth, ‘tie-breaking’ member would hail from. But both Brown and Haywood board president Carolyn Lauter said equal voice was a non-negotiable point.

“We felt this was extremely important when we started talking,” said Lauter. “I think that’s what everybody was very concerned about. “

And that concern isn’t unfounded. The Asheville board would be bringing in more than 80 percent of the assets. And even post-recession, its membership is still two to three times larger than any of the other three boards.

Haywood Realtors also expressed fears that they would lose their local identity, which they’ve worked hard to craft and maintain over the years.

Blue, the Asheville board president, said he understands that fear and it’s something they’re actively working to address.

“That’s one of the things that we’re talking about and we’ll work through,” said Blue. “What’s important to be done in Haywood County? What programs are they involved in, where does money need to be allocated to continue those traditions? Because if you don’t, you defeat the purpose. That’s what we’ve been collectively talking about. “

And though it’s true that there is some risk involved for the smaller parties in a proposal like this, the flipside is all of the big-board perks they’ll now be privy to. Those include a full-time government affairs officer to pitch their interests with local governments.

Brown points to this as one of the major up-sides to regionalizing the real estate business in Western North Carolina.

“There are things that I cannot offer as a small association,” Brown said. “We have big association ideas that we want to offer, but we are somewhat limited because of our size.”

That will all probably change if they lock into the regional board.

This, however, begs the question: what’s the draw for Asheville, whose board has been actively courting the other three for a merger? They already enjoy the large-city benefits that their size would afford to the other, smaller boards.

According to Blue, it’s all about the money for Asheville Realtors. Their dues, he said, are significantly higher than other boards, and his members would be keen to see cuts to cost without cuts to their services.

“What we see is an opportunity that we can combine forces and have more services to offer to our members at a lesser cost,” Blue said. “Really, the driving impetus behind us is that we would have more for less.”

Asheville members, however, aren’t completely convinced either. Blue said that, overall, they’ve been asking for more information before they give their yes or no. And although their concerns are different, Haywood County Realtors seem to be saying the same thing: we don’t hate it, but we don’t know enough to love it, either.

“We’re just all gathering information at the moment. It’s not really anything that you have enough information to make a decision on,” said Marty Prevost, broker-in-charge at Main Street Realty in Waynesville. Prevost said many of her colleagues seem to feel the same way. “Everybody sort-of feels the same way. We’re still gathering information.”

The concept of regional real estate really is nothing new for this region — all four boards already collaborate on a regional multiple listings service, or MLS, that has worked splendidly for all involved, said Brown.

This merger, however, is more invasive than an MLS, as it would take full control of the board’s affairs out of their hands. But Brown said she and her leadership believe that, in an uncertain market, only the foolish ignore options without investigating them.

“Let’s sit at the grown up table,” Brown said. “Let’s hear the proposal, let’s see what’s in it for the association. We’re doing our due diligence.”

The choice, then, will be left with the Realtors, and if the process goes as planned, they may be voting by early next summer.

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