O-Town Interview: Giovanni & Elise Fernandez, broker and owner of National Real Estate

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(Courtesy of the Fernandez family)

What brought you from California to specifically Orlando?

I’m originally from LA and Elise is from NY. We were living in Las Vegas for 10 years, primarily focusing on real estate investments. We studied many cities across the United States to expand our business. We look for certain statistics and key market indicators, as well as lifestyle. In our research, we found that the economic opportunity in Orlando exceeded any other across the USA. Specifically, we invested in over 300 single-family homes the first year we moved here.


Tell us about your family.

Elise and I are hardworking, self-made individuals that came from a lot of love, families of entrepreneurs, but not a lot of money. We continue to embrace the loving family environment while appreciating the excitement of business and financial success. We have two boys: Junior, 7, and Otto, 5. While we may have more financial success now, we continue to have our children put their sweat equity into the projects we are working on, just as both Elise and I did with our parents while we were growing up. I remember delivering bread with my father and grandfather; Elise would go to job sites with her mom and assist in measuring kitchens and preparing estimates. Those experiences were integral in shaping the people that we are today. We understand the importance of teaching through example and life experiences. Our boys have demoed offices, painted over graffiti on block walls, and landscaped all over both the Milk District and the Hourglass District. Our desire is to make our previous generation proud and pass along their teachings to the future generation and instill in them the importance of working together as family, especially in entrepreneurship.


With large scale development happening throughout central Florida, why did you choose to develop/redevelop the historic downtown areas?

Open mind. Vision. Desire to make things better. Embrace the already established culture of downtown and enhance, revive, and repurpose. We aren’t ones to pass over the value of what is already existing. We always see a way to improve. For quite some time, the Hourglass District has been overlooked as a redevelopment project. There are tens of thousands of people who drive through the district every day. Similarly, in the Milk District, many locals were waiting for someone to come along and give new life to the corner of Bumby and Robinson. We both come from older cities where history and culture are important. Small town vibes are distinct. We wanted to create more of that in these underutilized spaces. We feel that these opportunities were meant for us.


We believe there are many different approaches to development…. Our approach starts with recognizing a need, then creating a development plan for the location that can grow organically, locally, and in collaboration with the surrounding communities and their leaders.


We also just like a challenge. Often times, the hardest developments are redevelopment—repurposing something and making it desirable and usable again. In the Hourglass District, we started with infrastructure and installed over 1,000 feet of sewer lines and connected all the buildings to city sewer (in part because Junior loves Ninja Turtles and wanted to build a sewer lair). Without that investment, we would not have been able to bring the local businesses to this area. Otto has big plans and ideas for the area and the possibilities were not endless enough for our family if we remained on septic tanks.


How much influence, if any, do the residents have when you start to redevelop an area?

A ton. Your target audience always has to decide what is successful and what is not. The growth of Orlando is incredible and the families and young professionals moving here are coming from all over with all kinds of needs, ideas, desires, and experiences that we must introduce to Orlando and the Hourglass District.


I understand you try to re-use as much of the existing building structure as possible. Why? Wouldn’t it often be easier and more cost-effective to demolish and build new?

Almost always, it is easier to start over and build, but how can you build history in that scenario? We aspire to add value by keeping the character of these locations.


In our eyes, the value of a building that cannot be easily recreated by just building it is much higher and more unique. When creating a legacy for your family is your number one goal, how does tearing down an old legacy make any sense?


You have chosen to not lease space to regional and nation chains, in favor of small “mom and pop” businesses. I would think this would come at a financial loss rent-wise to forego the chain in favor of the little guy?

We like working with other small businesses and families. The passion of many of the Orlando local small business owners cannot be beat! Each tenant that we have in the district we felt a great connection with. We are starting from scratch and building something new. The camaraderie among the businesses is of utmost importance if we are going to be successful in what we are creating. We didn’t feel the corporate chains would fit in a small-footprint redevelopment project and add to a homegrown atmosphere. This kind of redevelopment promotes working with local businesses in the area instead, whereas creating new large developments in larger plazas your tenant would more likely be regional or national brands.


Initially yes, you could consider there to be financial differences in the small business versus chains. We have been a good partner to the small businesses in the way of assisting with buildouts, TI’s and lower rents in the startup months, but as the businesses grow and flourish, they will be ready and willing to pay the market rents like any other tenant.


Every city and each citizen has an opportunity to contribute to the economic growth. We believe that if we are going to grow the local economy, then we must use patience and work together with the local businesses to provide opportunities to showcase their business, be successful, flourish, create local jobs and better pay. This is a long-term passion project for us. In time, we think we will all win.


You talk about leaving a legacy for your children. Can you elaborate?

My grandfather left Cuba in the 1960s to teach us that our ambition and hard work could be rewarded in the United States. Elise and I believe it is now our job to teach our children that when we pass them the baton it is their turn to do something great, whatever that is… Our part was to show them that my grandfather was right and that we could build something together that was great and an experience that we all shared together.


How do you envision The Hourglass District 3 – 5 years from now?

A bustling community, with a main street America vibe, with a central gathering space, people walking and biking the streets safely, happily, meeting with friends and family. We hope to see a difference in the pride of ownership of the surrounding residents and neighborhoods, and a deeper sense of community. We hope to see other businesses join the movement and expand the footprint to offer even more options of dining, shopping, entertainment, and general good atmosphere.


We envision additional growth and development in the surrounding areas to support and contribute to the growing popularity of the downtown urban edge communities.


How will the redevelopment of Curry Ford West help affect the surrounding housing market?

We aspire to elevate the residential much like how we approached the commercial. Appreciate the property that can be rebuilt and add to the surrounding areas by building residential that fits the environment and community needs.


What new businesses will be opening in the HGD in August?

We are excited to have Foxtail Coffee opening in August. As they grow in size and popularity, they have become somewhat of a local anchor for our project. Alongside Foxtail Coffee, Leguminati will be opening as well, offering a vegan dining experience. Edgez Dance Studio, TCG Salon, Claddagh Cottage, Peaceful Peacock Yoga Studio and Dramatic Education are some of the other businesses already open and operating in the District, and offering some really great community-centric events.


Lastly, what are you most proud of?

We are most proud of how we have moved through the process as a developer of the Hourglass District. We worked with the current tenants and community to cause change. We did not just selfishly move through and kick people out. We want our family to enjoy this neighborhood for years to come and the only way to do this is to have honest memories of good business and human practices.

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