PLANT CITY — Auctioneer Martin Higgenbotham begged, pleaded and cajoled the crowd, but in the end the economy spoke louder last week at an auction for 23 local properties, including many distressed and bank-owned sites.
"Come on you guys, are you serious?" Higgenbotham said, waving his arms, fishing for higher bids. "I've never seen anything like this, folks. Look, I got so excited I tore my pen up."
But the estimated 200 people at Hillsborough Community College's Plant City campus weren't biting. Buyers were looking for deals in line with the weak economy.
The best bid Higgenbotham received for a restored 100-year-old building at 111 S Collins St. in historic downtown Plant City was $230,000. Then, finally, one man raised his hand, indicating a $240,000 offer and a resumption of the back-and-forth between bidders.
"Thank you sir, glad you came," Higgenbotham said.
And so it went for two hours.
With foreclosures on the rise in Tampa Bay, many banks are turning to auctions to clear their books. Bay area foreclosures rose 3.5 percent in May to 4,446 compared with April, according to foreclosure listing site realtytrac.com. Statewide, foreclosures rose 7 percent.
Of the 23 Plant City properties offered for sale, eight were in bankruptcy, two were in foreclosure and two others — historic downtown buildings — are bank-owned.
Higgenbotham Auctioneers last auctioned this many Plant City properties four years ago. Among them were commercial, residential and industrial sites, vacant farm land and a former equine facility.
Higgenbotham had a tough time stirring to action the crowd, much of which attended simply to see who was buying. He waved his arms, stomped his feet. He pointed out what prices these properties would have commanded five years ago.
On two commercial sites owned by Mayor Michael Sparkman, 3018-3020 James L. Redman Parkway and a site at Alexander Street and Tillman Place, Higgenbotham suspended bidding when the offers came back too low — at a quarter of the properties' listed price.
Buyers snapped up the remaining sites, including two Lakeland properties, but at prices far below the asking levels. That was fine with buyers.
"I thought it was a really good price," said James Connell, Jr., 46, of Plant City after he purchased 39 acres at Trapnell and Smith Ryals roads for $6,700 an acre.
His sister-in-law, Melissa Connell, a Keller Williams real estate agent, said the same property would have sold for $30,000 to $40,000 an acre five years ago.
"In these economic times people are looking for a deal, and he got one," she said.
Steve Wyman, owner of Plant City Lock & Key, said he showed up to watch the bidding, but ended up purchasing 102 S Evers St. in downtown Plant City. The renovated two-story brick building, constructed in 1909, was valued at $380,000 two years ago, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office. Wyman paid $350,000.
"I'm very interested in downtown Plant City," he said. "I'm going to try to lease it to some type of business. I want to see something go in there. I'll figure it out."
The buyers have 45 days to close. The sellers have until Sunday to accept or reject the offers, but they can seek higher prices if the bids are rejected and buyers are willing to talk.
"With a couple of exceptions, I think what you saw here was the market in action," Higgenbotham said. "This is the market today."
Rich Shopes can be reached at (813) 661-2454 or [email protected]