Real Deals

Fidelity enjoys the catbird seat

Staff WriterJuly 16, 2009 

Good things come to those who wait, as Fidelity Investments may be learning.

Three years ago, executives with the Boston financial services company said it would hire 2,000 people in the Triangle and fit them in a shiny new campus in Research Triangle Park by the end of 2009.

Fidelity has come close to meeting its hiring goals. But even after paying at least $19.4 million for 269 undeveloped acres in the southern half of RTP, the company hasn't built anything.

Now the guessing game among brokers and developers is shifting from when Fidelity will start building to whether it will at all.

Fidelity is likely content to sit on that answer for a good while. After all, the company is in an enviable real estate position locally.

In February, company officials said they were re-thinking plans for the campus. That hasn't changed, company spokesmen said this week.

Indeed, Fidelity's options may improve the longer it waits.

Much of it has to do with a beleaguered telecom company and its landlord. Nortel Networks, which leases about 870,000 square feet of office space in RTP, is seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. As part of its restructuring plan, Nortel can walk away from the leases, which expire in 2016.

That would put its RTP landlord, Zurich Structured Finance, in a pickle if Nortel disappears from the area. Finding new tenants for all that space would be difficult in a down market.

Fidelity could be Zurich's way out of that fix. Nortel hasn't made a decision on what it will do locally. But Fidelity is no doubt paying close attention.

That's because Fidelity, whose 700,000 square feet of temporary offices are scattered about the Triangle, is already in some of the Nortel buildings. About one-third of Fidelity's local offices are subleased from Nortel. The rest is held with other landlords through flexible leases that are easy to exit.

And if Nortel decides to cancel its leases with Zurich, that means Fidelity's leases there are cancelled, too, making Fidelity an unrestricted free agent in a market littered with buildings begging for a heavy-hitting tenant.

That could give Fidelity some leverage against Zurich.

While Fidelity waits for the Nortel dust to settle, it can continue to plan its new campus without worry. Fidelity has some flexibility in that department, too.

As it has waited to start building, construction costs have plummeted.

Fidelity, meanwhile, can watch prices go lower. Development deadlines imposed by RTP give Fidelity until the end of the year to begin construction. But the company can extend its starting date by another year, if needed.

And if it decides not to build, it can sell the land back to the Research Triangle Foundation, which governs RTP.

Rick Weddle, the foundation's chief executive, says that while Fidelity has delayed its decision, it has not indicated plans to cancel construction.

"The last time I talked to them, they were still committed to the project," Weddle said.

But that was three months ago.

Weddle himself has witnessed the wonders of waiting.

A year ago, RTP was drawing up plans for road improvements. An engineer's estimate at the time came in at $6 million.

When bids went out, the estimate had dropped to $4.2 million.

The lowest bidder offered to do the job for $2.9 million.

jack.hagel@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8917

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